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Ultra Violet on Art, Artists and Andy

DKR – Having met Marcel Duchamp as a young woman in France, what was your impression of him?

UV – He had a beautiful face and he was quite elegant, a dandy. He had a very fine mind, but towards the end of his career he totally abandoned art. His cliché phrase in French was, “l’echeque c’est moi” implying that he had check-mated himself. His work is certainly bold and original. Because of Duchamp’s influence, art has taken a turn toward non-art. Duchamp prefigured a society in which the machine takes over and technology prevails over human emotions. Overall, I think it’s a catastrophe. I don’t have any answers, you can’t copy the old masters. Art is like other issues in society. It’s like atomic energy. Maybe we’ve taken the wrong road. Maybe we should have started to use solar energy centuries ago but we did not. Are we taking the wrong avenues in art too?

DKR – In your book Famous for Fifteen Minutes, you discuss the first meeting with Andy Warhol in the East 47th Street factory. You describe feeling a strong physical attraction to him. Was it largely curiosity on your part or did he have a kind of sensual magnetism?

UV – It was a lot of things but first of all he was extremely unique. He was like an alien from outer space and he did have a lot of magic and magnetism. Obviously many people gravitated around him. I have always cared for artists and I found him very intriguing. I think all the women and probably the men at the factory were extremely attracted to him. He was laid back which is a quality that attracts people. When you are low key, people want you more and more.

Ultra Violet backstage at Conquest of the Universe with Marcel Duchamp and Taylor Mead, 1967, photo credit: Wynn Chamberlain.

DKR – You did not participate in the drug scene at the Factory and were deeply troubled by the drug-related death of Edie Sedgewick. Do you blame Warhol for his permissive views on drug use at the Factory?

UV – It’s hard to say and I don’t want to incriminate him. Since he’s dead he cannot defend himself. That would be unfair and inelegant. The era was very much into drugs. Certainly, Warhol liked eccentric characters or people who went out of themselves. He preferred to film them because he thought they would be more interesting to the audience than people who were less extravagant. He never passed a judgement. He was not openly for or against anything although inside he felt differently. One of his “ambitions” was to film Edie overdosing. Maybe that sounds cruel but he was not interested in the cinéma verité of Godard, but cinéma realité which is something different. Therefore, he was something of an anthropologist and chronicler of the times.

DKR – How do you reconcile your friendship with both Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot him?

UV – Valerie may have been a bit demented but she was also a revolutionary. She was quite extreme of course, she was a lesbian and hated men. I am not for hatred but in a way she was both mad and brilliant. And she had passion. I am currently writing a screenplay of my book and I have a scene at the end when I’m at St. Patrick’s, where we had the memorial. A lot of the victims of the ‘60s come flying in and she and Andy kiss and make up and forgive one another. She was eccentric so I make her more eccentric in my screenplay. Andy Warhol took a lot of chances, so he was either brave or unconscious. The door of the factory was always open and crazies used to come in. She’s not the only one that came in, and on many occasions revolvers were fired. The famous shot went through some Marilyn Monroe paintings and Warhol called them Shot Marilyns. When he realized the danger of it all he put a stop to it.

Ultra Violet under the Stars and Stripes, in the background a poster by John Chamberlain of the film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez.

DKR – Warhol wanted to design a record cover for John Lennon and you were present at a meeting between he, John, and Yoko. What kind of rapport did they have and why didn’t Warhol get the job in your opinion?

UV – Andy certainly admired them because of their talent and their fame. John and Yoko also knew everybody, including a lot of artists. They had a good relationship, though Andy was busy doing his own thing and so was John Lennon. But I think they had respect and admiration for one another. Dalì also used to see Lennon on occasion and had great admiration for him. Yoko was also part of the dialogue, she is a forceful lady and has definite ideas. She is not influenced by anyone and she certainly participated in discussions, but in a very Oriental way. People coming from an Asian culture often have a specific way of expressing themselves, speaking, and pondering things. She has done a lot of spiritual study and that was part of it too. With regard to the record cover, Warhol asked for too much money.

DKR – Dalì and Warhol outwardly seem like similar personality types. How did they get along?

UV – First of all, it’s interesting to know that Warhol copied so many things from Dalì. Dalì had some toys at his suite at the Saint Regis Hotel and they were inflatable silver blimps. Warhol came to visit one day and thought they were great and a month later he came out with his square inflatable pillow that had more of a pop style. In the ‘60s Dalì was the most photographed artist, I wouldn’t say he was the most famous, Picasso was number one, but Dalì was in the press constantly and Warhol really wanted that seat. So, Warhol copied a lot of things from Dalì including his extravagant entourage. And he took some people from Dalì’s entourage, myself being one of them but there were a few others. The entourage brought a lot of people in, and like Dalì he created a definite look for himself. You have to have a definite look if you want to be famous. Anyway, they both had it. Warhol was sort of an introvert while Dalì was very extroverted. Dalì produced a cascade of verbal expression and Warhol was mute on many occasions, so they had the opposite attitude. Dalì had an extraordinary way of expressing himself and Warhol didn’t say anything because he barely talked. Warhol would say, “Ah, ooh, gee,” although that was also a conscious position. It might have come naturally but it was probably somewhat forced and it intrigued the press a lot. When we did interviews Warhol would not speak most of the time and we would have to speak for him. That was unusual because he would try everything to be on TV and radio and when the time came he was totally silent. That was a game. Of course, Warhol went out every minute to every place and Dalì used to be invited everywhere. I remember an incident when the astronauts came back from space there was a luncheon given by Time magazine and we were invited and so was Warhol. But Dalì was not invited for some strange reason and Dalì was extremely upset. He realized that things were shifting, and that Pop Art was becoming very acceptable as the new American thing. When Dalì saw the first Campbell’s Soup can he said, “That’s unreal, that’s unheard of!” They were two worlds apart. Dalì was a surrealist who started in the ‘30’s and Warhol came on the scene in the ‘60s so, in a way, things had to change.

Ultra Violet and Andy, photo credit: Sam Falk.

DKR – In retrospect what do you think was the most important legacy of Andy Warhol?

UV – American dreams and disasters, fame being part of the dreams. I think that all the younger artists are obsessed with Warhol and what they are obsessed with is rather the fame more than the meaning of his work. What makes Warhol unique among the other pop artists is that he really depicted the American dream. Neither Oldenburg nor Lichtenstein nor any of the other pop artists did that. The American dream is embodied by dollar sign, you know, prosperity, beauty and fame like the movie stars, glamour, and smiles. It seems to be happiness. But this side of the American Dream was not enough for Warhol. What is fascinating is that he also did the reversal of the dream, which are the American disasters. He painted American highways littered with car crashes, the mushroom of the atomic bomb (which only America has used), and the electric chair. The “most wanted” gangsters and suicides are also part of the American disasters. So it is very interesting that he saw both sides. And I think that is why he is so celebrated, because the American dream, the American way, and American imperialism are extremely powerful. Warhol remains the chronicler of the United States and as long as the United States is strong he will be the number one artist. In the end, however, it was neither the American dream nor the American disasters that really matter. The work that Warhol was doing two years prior to his death, 1986-1987, was of a spiritual nature and I understand because I have similar concerns. He was doing The Last Supper, work from the Scriptures, a punching bag Christ, crosses, and Madonnas. For him that was really what mattered. He had been raised in a religious household, left it, and went back to it in a different way. Andy told me that he had a premonition of his death as he entered the hospital.

Ultra Violet at VOLTA New York, March 2013, photograph by the author.

DKR – Could you discuss the death of Andy Warhol?

UV – It’s interesting that when he went to the hospital, the private nurse in his room didn’t notice that he had stopped breathing. Then the rescue team came by and got his heartbeat going for twelve heartbeats. Then his heart stopped and they revived him a second time and got about three heartbeats. Then they revived him again and got one heartbeat but by that time there was blood all over the room. There are two ironies there. One is that when they try to revive you they give you an electric shock, so the man who invented the picture of the electric chair was himself electrocuted. Also he was poorly monitored in the hospital. He was a trauma victim because of the Valerie Solanas shooting and should have been monitored quite closely. He was given Penicillin although he was allergic to it, and they didn’t monitor his fluid intake and outtake. Apparently he had urine retention, and it’s ironic that the man who made oxidation paintings with his own urine, probably wanted to relieve his bladder and make one last painting and could not. When he went into the hospital he asked the people at the check-in desk if there was anyone famous there. He was told, “No, you’re the only one mister.” The next day he woke up fine and the second day he was gone. He was the most famous artist but there was nobody around him, no friends or family.

DKR – As an artist what were the most important lessons you learned from Dalì and Warhol?

UV – Dalì was a genius on all levels – through his mind, his thinking, his writing, his concepts, his technique, his know-how, his speed, his talent, and his intuition. He was just extraordinary. And I think he’s under-estimated. You know that in Europe we had some abstract artists who were very good, very poetic, and then Abstract Expressionism came along and all those people went unnoticed. Dalì practiced the Paranoid Critical Method and I think I’ve taken some of that. I become like a computer and everything that I ingest, like the photograph on the front page of the New York Times, comes out in the form of art. Warhol taught me the importance of speed. If the projection time of the film is two hours it should be filmed in two hours. Hollywood would take about two years. Warhol tried to do things very quickly. Sometimes I work with student interns and they are so slow. I suppose it’s the notion of the value of time. Time is speeding past and I always feel that there are only fifteen minutes left. So if you can do a painting in fifteen minutes, why not? Fifteen seconds would be better.

Ultra Violet with the author at VOLTA New York, March 2013, photo credit: Christian Depardieu.

DKR – What sort of art work are you making now?

UV – My medium is really light, I’m interested in light, and I used to paint the light prism. In France I recently completed a mobile with twenty painted rainbows. But I thought it would be better to make them in light, and I began to make neon rainbows. To me the rainbow is a symbol of hope, it goes from the earth to heaven and it’s made of light. There was a rainbow in the Old Testament after the flood, which is a symbol of the alliance between God and man. In France I was commissioned to make a giant rainbow, 50 feet wide by 25 feet high in steel that weighs 4 1/2 tons. I would really like to see that piece installed in New York City because I think New York is still in a state of traumatic shock and needs a new icon. I would like to see it in Central Park, on the waterfront, or perhaps between the twin towers when they rebuild them.

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Ultra Violet’s book Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol was originally published by Harcourt Brace Books in 1988 and has since been published in 13 foreign languages. In 1989 it won the Deutsche Bibliothek Frankfurt Award.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2002.

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