Ultra Violet: Artist and muse who was part of Salvador Dali's inner circle then joined Andy Warhol's coterie of 'Superstars'


Through much of the 1960s, Ultra Violet, who has died of cancer, was one of the so-called "Superstars" gravitating around Andy Warhol at his New York studio, the Factory, as if determined to embody the artist's famous, prescient pronouncement that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes."

She was born Isabelle Collin Dufresne but Warhol pointed out that no one in the US would ever be able to remember, never mind pronounce, her French name, and called her Ultra Violet after her penchant for lilac or purple clothes, wigs and make-up, including lipstick made from beetroots. By her own admission she was an "unleashed exhibitionist chasing headlines" and appeared in several underground films by Warhol and his associates. Unlike the tragic figures of the transgender Candy Darling and the socialite Edie Sedgwick, she was not immortalised in song by Lou Reed, and lived to tell her story in her 1988 memoir, Famous For 15 Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol, subsequently translated into 17 languages.

A rebellious child, she came from a haute bourgeoisie family who owned a château near Grenoble and didn't know what to do with her. In and out of reform schools, she studied art in Grenoble and was "shipped off" to join her elder sister in New York. "I was only 17 but I was determined to take the city by storm," she said in 2009. "I was a rather striking beauty."

Salvador Dali took a shine to her when she delivered a present from a mutual friend to his New York hotel. She became part of his inner circle, alongside his wife Gala, and was his muse, studio assistant and pupil at his house in the Spanish fishing village of Port Lligat and wherever the artist went. "He was a fascinating character," she reflected about the painter, who was 30 years her senior. "I was his favourite but our relationship was rather platonic,"

In 1964 Dali introduced her to Warhol. "With his wig and his high-pitched, eunuch-like voice, I thought he was a woman," she recalled. Nevertheless, when Warhol asked her to appear in The Life Of Juanita Castro, an experimental improvised film he was about to direct, she accepted. "I felt surrealism was becoming old hat, I was delighted to be discovering something else," she said. "The Factory was this huge loft space, all covered in silver by the painter Billy Name. It was an extraordinary place, open to every one, with people dropping in to buy art, to have their portrait done, to have fun or to get high on one thing or another."

An observer untroubled by the drug-taking that afflicted so many of the Warhol entourage, Ultra Violet noted that many of the original "Superstars", Baby Jane Holzer, Viva and International Velvet, were "young, beautiful, high society women," while she and the German model, actress and singer Nico, whom Warhol teamed up with his protégés the Velvet Underground, fitted the exotic European mould. Rough boys like Joe Dallesandro and transgender creatures like Candy Darling, Holly Woodland and Jackie Curtis, followed in their wake. "If I had lived like all those young people, I would be dead today," she later remarked. "I survived by grace alone."

In 1967 she was back in France, participating in a staging of the farcical Pablo Picasso play Desire Caught By The Tail at the Festival Libre in Saint-Tropez, a remarkable event also featuring the British underground group Soft Machine. The same year, she acted in I, A Man, an obvious pastiche of the Swedish erotic film I, A Woman, alongside Nico and Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist writer who shot and seriously injured Warhol in 1968.

"She was crazy, she thought he had stolen a film script of hers. After that, things changed at the Factory," said Ultra Violet. She had always found Warhol, she said, "intriguing, ambivalent, almost schizophrenic. He could be a devil or an angel. He had hundreds of people on a retainer and never did a day's work. We all did those big lithographs for him, sometimes we used to sign them in his name as well! It all seemed normal at the time. He charged $20,000 a piece for a portrait. Warhol really symbolised the American dream. Celebrity, the 'Superstars', the almighty dollar, instant food like Campbell's soup. And its flipside as well: the car crashes, the electric chair, the guns. That's why Warhol is important."

Ultra Violet appeared in Midnight Cowboy, the 1969 John Schlesinger drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, and Taking Off, the 1971 comedy directed by Milos Forman, as well as several films that have become cult classics, most notably the 1971 camp psychedelic horror picture Simon, King Of The Witches.

Following a near-death experience in 1973 she began questioning her hedonistic lifestyle, and turned to the Mormons. Her spiritual quest was reflected in her subsequent work, particularly paintings and sculptures depicting the heavens, the Holy Shroud and angelic creatures. She also used other media including prints, photography and neon.

Much of her recent work had revolved around the Roman numerals IX and XI, a rather facile, Warholesque reference to the events of 9/11. "I'm a New Yorker and I'm an artist," she said. "I had to do something about 9/11, and the question was what to do, which is not simple. I have infinite imagination. Maybe I don't have too much technique."

Isabelle Collin Dufresne (Ultra Violet), artist and muse: born La Tronche, France 6 September 1935; died New York 14 June 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Packaging Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for two indivi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas