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Art In Conversation

Ultra Violet with John Merchant

John Merchant (Rail): I’d like to start by asking what prompted you to write Famous for Fifteen Minutes.
Ultra Violet: I did not write it. By this I mean, when Warhol passed away in ’87 I wrote an article for New York magazine. Subsequently, Doubleday and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich called me and said they liked the article, and they asked whether I had more of the same material. I said I have my journals and they asked me to read through them. I said sure. They read it and they told me I have a book. I said, I have a book? Of course, when you decide to put it in book form you do some corrections and additions, but anyway, the editor took his scissors and cut a lot out and kept mostly the Warhol stuff, which makes sense because Warhol was a big star and he just had passed away. Mine was the first book out on Warhol and it had quite a success.

Laurent Foissac.
Laurent Foissac.

Rail: It is a fascinating book. The book jacket blurb appeals by its description of your very different upbringings: Andy Warhol coming from the American industrial city born of Eastern European immigrants and your family being very well settled on the Cote d’Azure. One couldn’t imagine more distinct upbringings, yet you both travel very far in different directions, and I was wondering if you could tell me about what made you spring from the cradle of such a settled family to meet with such extravagance.

Ultra Violet: [Laughs.] Well, I guess it was my own revolution—internal revolution. You know, I disagreed with the hypocrisy of society and I disagreed with my Catholic upbringing and I disagreed with everyone. When I had my first period, I rebelled against it—I did not want any of that. I was a very rebellious child. And I sort of remember prenatal memories where I didn’t want to come to this world because I could see how hard it would be and how unfair things were. So anyway, being rebellious as I was, it would make sense that I come to New York during the experiment of the American revolution. It was sort of natural that I met Warhol—you know, in the ’60s you met everybody, so I was doomed to meet Warhol. But if you look at Edie Sedgwick for a minute, I mean her upbringing was also very different. What’s interesting about the Factory is that the ladies seem to come from rather upper class where the men, the boys were really—you know—from the gutter. So that’s a pretty interesting thing. I don’t know what conclusion you want to draw from that. Maybe Warhol did associate more with “the boys from the gutter,” but he wanted to climb up the ladder and be part of high society and hence, well, he found all those rebellious women so that was perfect. Maybe at the same time he could benefit and identify with them.

Laurent Foissac.
Laurent Foissac.

Rail: How did these groups mix? Was the common denominator the search for fame?

Ultra Violet: Well, no. Not at first. Eventually, Warhol offered fame to everybody and everybody’s eyes start to glitter but that was not the first thing when you went there. It was the excitement, it was the ’60s and Warhol was clever enough to have a big silver loft and the door was open—I mean, there were a lot of other pop artists but they did not do his kind of thing. Andy’s pop conception was not so much the painting but the people, the film, the interaction, the social, and the culture—so that was a very exciting place at the time. So that was the common denominator. To be on film is so exciting even if you might be sleeping. Everybody wanted to be on film. Everybody wants to be famous. I mean fame is the primo mobile of culture nowadays.

Rail: What films were you in?

Ultra Violet: I was in The Portrait of course; and in Juanita Banana, a very early film; and 24 Hour Bathroom; and I, A Man, with Valarie Salanas and Tom Baker. I was in Midnight Cowboy, and worked with Norman Mailer in Maidenstone, and I was in one of Woody Allen’s pictures something night train day train whatever. I was in one of Mussorgsky’s films called Unmarried Woman I think. But anyway this is all lost in the shadows of the past.

Laurent Foissac.
Laurent Foissac.

Rail: Some of the shadows of your past were quite illustrious. When you first arrived in New York, some of the people you’ve mentioned that you met were very significant figures of the art world, such as Andrew Wyeth, Willem de Kooning, Miro, Dubuffet, Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, etc. How was it that you found yourself so quickly off the boat, as it were, to be in New York in such distinguished company?

Ultra Violet: No, it was very natural in the ’60s and I guess in those years I was very communicative and very dynamic and very beautiful. I had a tremendous energy. I remember one time I had a rock group and I was up all night rehearsing, and they could not follow me. They had to take drugs, you know. The energy was being Warhol-like, going everywhere and meeting everybody. So it was just very, very natural.

Rail: I want to come back to the moment that you decided to change your name to Ultra Violet. When was that? It seems like it was a baptism of sorts.

Ultra Violet: Well, it was when I met Warhol and made my first movie with him. He said, and everybody said, you know, “We gotta change your name.” My birth name is Isabelle Collin Dufresne, which is a very beautiful name, but no one can pronounce it or remember it so I had to take a pop name. It was about 1963-4 and Warhol wanted to name me Poly Ester, and I did not like that, or Notre Dame, or whatever. Anyway, I said I will find my own name, which I eventually did in reading Scientific American. I was very interested in that magazine in those years and I really love that name Ultra Violet. As I mentioned in my book, it has the five vowels of the alphabet which I think is remarkable. That’s probably the only name on earth that would have that. I love vowels because I think they’re so bright and it’s the color artura of the alphabet. Anyway, it’s a hard name to carry truly. And the irony of it is that today I am sun sensitive, I’m allergic to the ultra violet rays which is quite ironical, and I have to cover up myself with special fabric that is sun-protective and blocks about 99 percent of the ultra violet rays.

Rail: When we talk about the Factory, and Andy Warhol, its central figure, he emerges as one who was so cool, impersonal, and impassive. Yet, I enjoyed reading your account of his upbringing, and particularly of his mother, whom you met a couple times. I was wondering if you could talk about Julia Warhol a bit.

Ultra Violet: Well I think she was quite an eccentric lady and, naturally she loved her little son—and she’s the first person that Warhol put to work. You know, Warhol had quite a gift to present multi-level marketing without pay [laughs] and the mother was right under him. He had her draw, sign, do everything for him—cook, of course. What’s ambiguous was that Andy lived with her, I don’t know, for 45-50 years or so, and when she passed away he did not go to the funeral. This was typical of Andy Warhol, you know, not schizophrenic but very, I don’t know [laughs]. I remember also especially when Andy was shot she was at the hospital sort of crying in her native language. She spoke English but not terribly well. And she was just saying, “They killed my Andy.” “They killed my Andy,” she kept repeating this like a mantra. I was very fond of her even though I just saw her a few times.

Laurent Foissac.
Laurent Foissac.

Rail: You visited her at her house when Andy was shot and you crossed over that magic threshold into the Warhol treasure trove.

Ultra Violet: Right.

Rail: Can you describe what you saw there?

Ultra Violet: Well at the time he was still living on 89th Street and Lexington, so that was not the final townhouse that he had that was stuffed from floor to ceilings with treasures—well it looks like a bohemian house, lots of boxes—cardboard boxes—lots of things piled up—the house was not as decorated or splendid as the one that Andy had eventually in the ’60s. But it was full of treasures in cardboard boxes. I suppose with no modern art on the wall, that’s what’s interesting. I think Andy hated modern art.

Rail: One would have the impression that he was a collector.

Ultra Violet: He was but it was never displayed on the wall—it was in the closet . What’s amazing is, when he passed away I went to his house, and his bedroom looked like a duke’s from the 17th century—the bed with ordinate and velvet and very heavy brocade, and many pieces of heavy mahogany furniture. Not a single contemporary painting on the wall. Very puzzling.

Rail: There’s another collection that you describe having a rare viewing of and that’s the one of the Russian-born American artist John Graham, and he’s also famous for his connoisseurship and collecting. Can you remember that apartment?

Ultra Violet: Yeah, he lived in the basement of a little townhouse on East 77th Street, which on the top floor had Leo Castelli’s first gallery. Actually, I met him in the elevator going to the gallery. He kept following me and eventually I went to the basement to his home and it was quite amazing. He had some very fine bronze sculptures. For instance, one of them he claimed was a Donatello’s horse, which is unheard of, and then he had a collection of jewelry— I can’t say if it was real or fake—gigantic diamond stone necklace—and a lot of magical objects like the wand of Cagliostro and a lot of crystal balls, concave and convex magical mirrors, and some esoteric Egyptian things—he was a very interesting character.

Laurent Foissac.
Laurent Foissac.

Rail: John Graham, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol all were major figures in the art world that you were at times very close to. Was there one whom you related to more than the others in terms of your artistic sensibility?

Ultra Violet: It’s hard to say. Graham was a very good artist but he did not have a huge production—not that you should measure someone or judge someone by their production. He was very interested in esoteric studies so he spent a lot of time on this. His paintings are very unique I would say, but Dali was an amazing genius, absolutely extrovert. His work is amazing, ideas, humor, technique, meaning—it’s just staggering—he was extremely extrovert. Warhol was just about the opposite—introvert, and he was the son of Dadaism where things are simpler, more conceptual. I would probably rank Dali as, you know, the greatest genius—but art is on the move and it’s moving all the time and you cannot do what has been done in the past. Surrealism had its hour of fame and then you’ve got to move on—and Pop Art eventually took over and has its own merit. Warhol was a genius in some other ways—in marketing, in assessing the materialism of American culture, and representing it as his tabloid, American icons. It’s a different world. And Warhol said buying is much more American than thinking— or whatever it was. You know, it’s quite a statement. It’s so very true and his idea that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, a childlike remark but very prophetic. That’s very typical of Warhol.

Rail: Did you suggest he paint a soup can?

Ultra Violet: Yeah, one day we were in a coffee shop—actually, it used to be in my building that is no longer there on 88th Street and Madison. On the shelf they had some Campbell canned soup. Andy was always fishing for ideas you know—“I don’t know what to do,” “What shall I do,” “Help me.” So as a result a hundred thousand people suggested to him what he should do. I think he was doing some kind of a poll and if enough people would tell him the same thing then that’s what he would do. So I did suggest he should paint that. Eventually he showed that to Ivan Karp and he had two different versions: one was like a photo, if you will, and the other had some reminiscence of Abstract Expressionism in that the label was sort of coming off the can and there was some lyricism in it. Ivan Karp told him, “No, no you have to do it as a photo,” which is what he did then.

Laurent Foissac.
Laurent Foissac.

Rail: In another place in the book you say that Andy Warhol was the spiritual father of AIDS, given all the shared needles and casual sex and certainly in the ’80s it touched everybody. Did he ever speak on the subject as AIDS was spiraling out of control? Did it ever seem that he was regretting somehow that libertine moment that he was marshalling?

Ultra Violet: I don’t think so. I don’t think he regretted anything. He was an interesting character in that you never knew what he was thinking and I think he was a great doer but he was not a speaker. He would never say anything for or against AIDS or any other subject, even the Vietnam War, so it’s hard to know how he felt. I know at the end of his life he was perfectly celibate but that might not have been because of fear. One of his ex-boyfriends died of AIDS, but it looks like nothing would shake him up.

Rail: Toward the end of the book, speaking of regret—or no regrets—you talk about all the people from the ’60s and you go through very neatly how everyone has met the fate of drugs and disease. There were not a lot of success stories, finally. What would you say or not say to young people—there are a lot of young people in the city who are holding out for fame of some kind and in many ways there is the Warhol model—what can you say about this pursuit of fame?

Ultra Violet: Well, first of all, I really cared for that chapter about the survivors and it took me a lot of time. I wrote that after Warhol’s death and I researched everybody. I wanted to know what happened to everybody and indeed there are a lot of casualties. The one that took most time was Valerie Solanas because she actually was homeless for about 40 years, and to track her down was certainly not easy. I had no idea what she would look like nowadays, but I did finally track her down—I did the work of an FBI detective. It mattered to me and I was able to speak to her about a month prior to her death. I called her again to get a recent photo of her, but I could not speak to her because she had just passed away. You know we live in an era of fame. There’s a lot to say for fame—fame is a parody or a pale substitute for eternity. According to the World Guinness Record, the most famous person is Jesus Christ—by the way we live by his time, we are now in 2002 after his birth, the second most famous person is the Queen of England—why? Because it’s an institution, though you might not even know her first name, and I think the third one might be Buddha. So you know people want to be God, and I personally believe that we are the literal children of God and that we might deserve that kind of a future. But of course, to want fame at any cost—that can be pretty tragic, as my book will show. I think one of the reasons people are actually hypnotized by Warhol is because of his fame. I meet a lot of little kids and I say, well, what do you like about Warhol? So they go “gee… wah,” and they can’t say a word. So, well, how is his work? They cannot put two words together. All they know is Warhol. You know, it’s in their mind all the time, I think, because of his fame. And of course the ’60s were quite a remarkable time, I must say, where so many things came together and this extraordinary freedom—of course there’s a price to freedom. What interests me today, now that I can step back, is really the legacy of Warhol’s work, which I find extremely fascinating. Pop Art started in England then it came to the U.S., but Warhol sort of got all the credit. I think the reason he did is because in his work he depicted the American dream. The American dream is the dollar sign, the fame, the beauty, Marilyn Monroe, the flowery lifestyle, the smile, the glamour, the beauty, and then Warhol also depicted the American disasters—that’s very nice because that’s yin and yang, it’s not all rosy in America: the electric chair, suicide, the atomic bomb, the most wanted man, the Mafia, and what have you. So Warhol is documenting this American “imperialism” and pages of American history, like the ones of John F. Kennedy being shot. He took the photos of the president when he was shot and leaned them to the right in sequence. Like when the first man walked on the moon, naturally Warhol did a painting of the first man on the moon. All of those extraordinary pages of American history. So as long as there will be such a thing as American “imperialism” Warhol is going to be the most praised and uncontested leader of American art and the crowning of the American Dream, especially happening in the ’60s. But the young kids don’t see any of that—they tell me “Oh, he has pretty colors”—I say, yeah, he has pretty colors but so did Matisse. Naturally Warhol’s colors are just like Matisse’s—but I think it has a very profound meaning. That’s what I see today.

Rail: I wonder what he would have made of the World Trade Center—the ultimate American disaster.

Ultra Violet: Right. Well, probably one silk screen with the two towers, and next to it is a silk screen with nothing. You know because that’s reality. They were there and then they were no longer there. Just like the electric chair, you know, in the series, sometimes the chair is there, sometimes its not there. That’s probably what Andy would have done.


John Merchant

JOHN MERCHANT is a contributing writer for the Rail.


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