Date of Birth: 6 September 1935, La Tronche, Grenoble, France
Birth Name: Isabelle Collin Dufresne
Nicknames: Ultra Violet
Isabelle Dufresne, the French artist, actress and muse, who was better known to Warhol acolytes as Ultra Violet, one of his entourage during the late 1960s.
Arriving in New York at the age of 16 , Isabelle swiftly found her niche as a socialite in the art world, befriending and bedding the likes of John Graham and Salvador Dali. In 1963 the latter introduced her to Warhol while they were having tea at the St Regis hotel.
Isabelle initially mistook the 35 year-old Warhol with his slight frame, wispy voice and synthetic nylon wig for a woman. “He said, 'Let’s do a movie together’,” she recalled. “I said, 'Fine, when?’ He said, 'tomorrow’.” The next morning she arrived at The Factory, Warhol’s studio on 47th Street, which was then the gathering place for his “superstars” a motley retinue of young artists, musicians, misfits and assorted hangers-on, all eager for their fabled 15 minutes in the spotlight.
The years that followed were Warhol’s most prolific as a director. Between 1963 and 1968 he made more than 60 films, most of them shot without budget, editing or script, and starring his superstars. Among them was Isabelle Dufresne, rechristened Ultra Violet, who would feature in some 17 films in total.
When in character as Ultra Violet, Isabelle coloured her hair deep purple, tinting her lips with fresh-cut beetroot. She immersed herself in the wild counterculture of the Factory, vividly depicted in her fictionalised 1988 memoir Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol. Police made frequent raids on the building, acting on scandalised reports of what went on at the “dark end” of the loft. Isabelle Dufresne herself described it as a scene of “needles, sodomy, handcuffs, beatings, chains”. Warhol, she recalled, maintained an aura of detachment throughout.
Beneath it all, however, there lay a desperate thirst for publicity, to the exclusion of any personal considerations. It was a thirst that Ultra Violet, then a self-confessed exhibitionist, understood. One of the most disturbing passages in her book described the fallout from the “disaffected superstar” Valerie Solanas’s murder attempt on Warhol in 1968. On the morning of June 3, Valerie walked into Warhol’s new Union Square Factory and shot him twice in the chest. Warhol recovered, only to complain that the successful assassination of Robert Kennedy three days later usurped his place in the spotlight.
By 1973 Isabelle Dufresne had distanced herself from the Warhol scene . Following a brush with death due to an ulcerated colon, she came out in condemnation of the unchecked drug-use, egotism and staged orgies that had characterised her life over the previous decade. Plagued by recurring nightmares of an inhuman, “hologram” Warhol, she denounced his art as “repetitive” and “empty”, and found solace in her born-again Christian faith.
Later, Isabelle would credit her conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints with saving her from the unhappy fates that befell several of Warhol’s acolytes. In the two years prior to her break from the artist, fellow “superstar” Andrea Feldman had committed suicide by jumping from her family’s apartment window; while Edith “Edie” Sedgwick, whose cousin Paulita later directed Ultra Violet for her final screen appearance in Blackout (1994), had died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 28. “I survived by grace alone”, she told an interviewer.
Isabelle Collin Dufresne was born on September 6 1935 in La Tronche, France, into a family of strict Catholic faith. Her father Paul was a wealthy investor and manufacturer. Sent to a convent school upon the outbreak of war, she was ejected as a teenager for rebellious behaviour. Reform school followed and a period studying art in Grenoble, after which her exasperated parents dispatched her to live with her older sister in New York.
Upon her first visit to the Factory, Isabelle soon to be Ultra Violet was immediately taken by Warhol and his art. An early attempt to seduce him on a fire escape ended in an unseemly tussle as Warhol tried to break free of her embrace. “I thought he was afraid of heights”, she recalled mournfully, “but I realised he was afraid of me.”
She also appeared, in 1967, in a staging of Pablo Picasso’s surreal play Desire Caught by the Tail; it proved ill-fated, however, as the production was greeted with such hostility at its premiere in St Tropez that the director Jean-Jacques Lebel was forced to leave town with cast and crew. Later she made a brief foray into mainstream films with Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978).
She continued to work as an artist under the name Ultra Violet for the rest of her life, with a 2006 solo show at the Stefan Stux Gallery in Manhattan and a mirror installation, entitled Self Portrait, in 2012. Three of her sculptures created in response to the World Trade Center attack currently reside in the permanent collection of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.