From Warhol’s Factory to the Land of Zion
It was around 1994 (seems like only yesterday) a friend called, said: there’s an artist visiting at BYU from New York, wanted to meet some interesting local folks, I thought of you. What d’you say?…I said: alright… Well then, come tonight at 6 pm to the Comfort Inn in Provo. She gave me the room number and I hung up already regretting being so agreeable. What I dislike more than interesting people is being considered an interesting person.
I head for the Comfort Inn and, as is my custom I’m right on time. Up one flight of stairs and I’m at the door. Knock. A woman answers. She’s nothing like I expected. There’s something Old Worldly about her, aristocratic and refined. She is wearing a purple gown and a rather long scarf wrapped around her neck and down her body. We shake hands and that’s when it hits me, like a revelation: I’m astonished by something half magnetic, half erotic that flows from her hand into mine. She welcomes me in with a heavy French accent. This is Isabelle Dufresne. What’s with me? She’s old enough to be my mother or my aunt. I’m uneasy and not a little disturbed by the stimulation—I’m turned on and I don’t know why.
My friend formally introduces us and we sit and chat about nothing in particular, until Ms. Dufresne starts in about art, her art. Her recent work involving apocalyptic angels. She sees herself as on a mission to save the world from male-dominated violence. You see, she declares, the angels will soon come and end all wars. They will fly down from the heavens and straddle the guided missiles and ride them out of harm’s way. After all, weapons of destruction are phallic in nature and appearance: guns, swords, missiles, and such. The angels will render every one of them impotent and ineffectual. These are the apocalyptic angels: angelic cowgirls in the holy rodeo war of the last days.
She then shows me some of her works expressive of this theme. She has come to Provo as a visiting artist at Brigham Young University where she is using the art department’s computers and printers to produce these spectacular images of the end of times. My friend explains that Isabelle was kept under wraps during her five-day visit, and given access to the equipment but not to the students, and met with only a chosen few of the faculty. Very mysterious lady, I think.
At a certain point in Ms. Dufresne presentation, my friend makes a random comment: Alex, you may have heard of Isabelle by another name…Ultra Violet…and the very moment the words “Ultra Violet” are pronounced, I catch a glimpse of a broach which no doubt had been in plain view all along, but until that instant was invisible, a broach with rhinestones spelling out ULTRA VIOLET! That explains everything, I said to myself: the phallic nature of her art, my perception of her erotic aura…it explains everything and much more, but it doesn’t explain what in heaven’s name she is doing in Provo and why BYU.
As I gaze at Ultra Violet with her new name, in a manner of speaking, I begin to see her in a new light…I flash back to certain images, now recollected almost subliminally, from certain films, risqué in the best sense of that word…one in particular, I, A Man (1967), in which Ultra, in a long, prolonged kiss, gives the concept of copulation a deep and more focused meaning… and I flash back to the ’60s and to New York and Andy Warhol and the Factory and the clique of folks that hung around and revolved about Warhol as planets ’round a sun…a star. And everybody was transformed into a star basking in his divine light.
She tells me of how after a near-death experience due to illness, she began to seek a higher truth and a higher power than that promised by the impresario of fame and glamor…and how in her search she encountered two Mormon missionaries who changed her life. She received a burning testimony of the truthfulness of the restored Gospel and Joseph Smith as true prophet of God and the instrument through which the truth was restored upon the Earth in these latter days. She tells me of how the Holy Ghost came upon her and revealed the error of her ways and how the light of truth shined upon her. She saw the error of her ways, and she was born again. Thus she left behind the life of sex and drugs and partying and debauchery and sin. Through her conversion Ultra emerged a Latter-Day Saint. And from that day on, she was an active and upstanding member of the LDS Church, humbled by her calling as the Homemaking Leader in the Relief Society of the Manhattan ward.
At this point, the last thing I want to talk about is the apocalypse or her re-born self. I wanted to know about her past; the art scene of the ’60s; the people she knew and what she thought of them. But my every overture is met with curt and abrupt replies and she heads back to the angels and the gospel message.
During this back and forth from Warhol to Jesus Christ, she lets slip something Dali said of her. When she was 19, she had been Salvador Dali’s studio assistant and his lover. “Dali said I was surreal,” she says, not with a little delight. I wholeheartedly agree. After all, he was one of the big daddies of surrealist truth, and truth by any other name is truth.
Then she goes on to describe her work for the dead. This is a Mormon temple practice by which living people get themselves baptized by proxy for some dead individual. She says it gives her no little joy knowing that Andy, that is Warhol, has accepted the gospel. She has a testimony and an assurance that he accepted the baptism and is now blissfully painting a plethora of heavenly soup cans in the celestial kingdom.
For me, this image of Andy Warhol in Mormon heaven is completely believable as uttered out of the mouth of Ultra Violet, a mouth that in former days indulged in orgiastic play, but which now exudes words of wisdom and spirituality.
When I press her again to tell me about the people she knew, such as Duchamp, her only response is: “Too much homosexuality.” And with that, she digresses back to the impending apocalypse and brings out more images from her Apocalyptic Angels series. She wants to stay on track, for straight is the way and narrow the path that leads to salvation…salvation from debauchery and drugs and sin.
The evening draws to a close and we say good night, arranging to meet next day for breakfast. As I drive home, I move through a surreal landscape, that is, not unreal or unbelievable, but super-real and sharp and miraculous, a landscape wherein the least likely events happen together and form an alternate reality…as Lautreamont described it long ago: “A Chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” Such a meeting has just occurred and I am filled with wonderment.
In the morning, the three of us sit together for breakfast at the Provo Comfort Inn. Ultra takes out a typescript she is working on and asks if I would read and edit it. I’d be happy to, I say. (Later, I write her to say how much I enjoyed the writing and that I would not change a thing. She writes as she speaks, with an accent that is part of her persona. However, I am certain that my recommendation will fall on deaf ears. She wants to be politically-grammatically correct.
Then, breakfast over, and after another bout on the nature and role of celestial art, we exchange gifts: I give her a book of my poems, she gives me an image of one of her apocalyptic angels. We part with a hug and a traditional French kiss on both cheeks. As I walk to my car, I can clearly taste and feel on my lips the subtle residue of a blend of flesh, makeup, and sweat.
* * *
And so, as happens to everyone sooner or later, this past June, Isabelle Dufresne, a.k.a. Ultra Violet, shed her mortal coil. In the days following her passing, my friends gave me their condolences, as if I were a member of her family…and so it is that I realize how in the kingdom of the saints there are those who do not sing to the choir, but yearn nevertheless for song. And I want to believe that sister Violet has flown off, escorted by her angels, back into the arms of Jesus, Joseph Smith and Andy Warhol. And in that august company, she is ever singing with her newfound ultra violet tongue…ne plus ultra.
Alex Caldiero is Alex Caldiero is a poet, polyartist, sonosopher, and scholar of humanities and intermedia.