Warhol Muse Ultra Violet Dies at 78

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Ultra Violet photographed in her New York City studio, 2012

Ultra Violet, an artist and Warhol Factory Girl who gained fame in the New York art scene of the 1960s, died Saturday at age 78.

In 1968, at the peak of The Factory’s cultural cachet, WNYC’s “Views on Art” featured Ultra Violet as a guest.

The interview questions by host Ruth Bowman could hardly be more staid. Bowman begins by saying, "We have an unusual guest today whose name is Ultra Violet and my confusion is whether to call her Ultra or Miss Violet." Bowman chuckled as if the whole idea was silly, then called her Ultra.

At the time, art was discussed with great earnestness by critics still influenced by two decades of Abstract Expressionism, which had been led by macho strivers like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose monumental works conveyed tortured emotion and existential questing.

But a new king — or queen — of art came along to blow up those values: Andy Warhol opened a "factory" to produce cool and commoditized works of art — and invited all kinds of people to make art with him, including a striking young French-American woman who, at Warhol's suggestion, replaced her given name, Isabelle Dufresne, with two words denoting an invisible part of the spectrum.

Later, she'd say she chose Ultra Violet for the "violet," which was her favorite color to dye her hair. She built her look on a bright color to contrast herself with Warhol, whose snowy wigs and dark sunglasses made him look like a black and white photo come to life.

Ultra Violet was an original Warhol "superstar" and appeared in several of his films, including one in which she lies on the floor with her shirt unbuttoned, talking to a young man who's smoking a cigarette. The film has no music or action and the conversation is banal. That is, until Ultra Violet purses her lips and says, "Well, how would you like to kiss me?" When the man asks her if that's what she wants, Ultra Violet purrs, "Mmmm, yes."

Then the two of them make out for 11 minutes. Toward the end of the sequence, Ultra Violet spends time showing off for the camera with her long and erotically outstretched tongue. That kind of behavior, combined with Warhol's barely mediated artistic technique, was striking at the time, even scandalous. It made Ultra Violet famous in the art world.

Years later, she told a documentary filmmaker that it might not be a bad idea for a young artist to grab some press by acting salaciously. "if you do, the press is going to cover it and that could be a stepping stone to being famous," she said. But after you're famous for, say, 15 minutes, you'd better get to work. "Eventually the work has to be good and it has to stand by itself," she added.

Ultra Violet's sculpture and paintings lean toward the surreal and reflect the irreverence of her first mentor, Salvador Dali. One painting shows the classical figure of Michelangelo's Adam with a grinning Mickey Mouse head and, where his genitals should be, a revolver. When asked by an interviewer to explain the imagistic mash-up, Ultra Violet was coy: "I wish someone would tell me the meaning of that revolver there. Can somebody help me and tell me? Nobody?"

Unlike many of the outsized figures who passed through Warhol's Factory, Ultra Violet worked for decades as a visual artist. She said it took her a year to finish a sculpture that is now on loan to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The sculpture spells out 9/11 in what she described as "peaceful, regal" Roman Numerals. And instead of giving them a grim or mournful hue, she colored them violet.