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
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine