First published: June 2014
Yesterday, I received word that Isabelle Collin Dufresne had died that morning, Saturday, June 14, 2014. Later this week, there will be memorial services, obituaries, and public and private reminiscences, and I look forward to participating in them, but before that happens, I want to jot down a few personal memories today
I once lived with Ultra Violet. When I first came to New York in 1985, I lived in her apartment overlooking the Guggenheim Museum. I was too stupid then to realize that I would never again live in such a magnificent place. We had a mutual friend who arranged the short-term stay. I had no idea who Isabelle was. I walked into her home, past the huge Warhol paintings of flowers, the Steinway grand piano, and the numerous French antiques on my way upstairs. As I remember it, the apartment was on three levels, each with its own terrace overlooking Central Park to the West and down Fifth Avenue to the Empire State building to the South. The apartment included the entire roof. The airlines had lost my luggage, and when I called home to report the sad news, my parents asked how the apartment was. I said it was “a little small.”
Very little about Isabelle was small. I suspect that the art world will eulogize her as one of Warhol’s “superstars” and as the girlfriend of any number of very, very famous men, but to me, she was also Sister Dufresne. Maybe that belongs in the public record, too
In the mid-80s, she was working as a translator at the United Nations. I didn’t know anything about her art then. In fact, I didn’t know who she was at all until I happened to mention with whom I was living to my boss at Doubleday. He dragged me to the Art Books department, and let’s say I had a little education.
I’m not fond of categorizing artists regarding quality, but it feels right to me to say that Ultra Violet (she used both names, almost interchangeably when at church and “Ultra Violet” exclusively for work) was one of the most interesting Mormon artists in our Church’s history. She joined the Church after a health scare. The episode is documented in her best-selling memoir, Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol. The bishop at the time of her conversion was Mark Graham, a painter who lived downtown.
I didn’t get the impression that she was a full-time artist until rather late in life. The subject matter of her works included angels, light, sky, celebrity, power, technology, and after 9/11, healing. She listed her influences as “Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and God.”
It’s not my place to make sweeping statements about how she was viewed by others and by the Church in particular, but I find it quite difficult to explain its neglect of this influential, original, and believing artist. It’s sad because she had so much to offer people who followed Mormonism and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
With Mormon Artists Group, a company I founded in 1999, I did a small project with Ultra Violet. She was wonderful to work with as a collaborator. And I frequently received emails from her acknowledging my projects and offering congratulations. She occasionally asked for advice, and I was always happy to help.
For a number of years, I tried to acquire some artwork by Ultra Violet. I’m not sure why it always fizzled out, but it did. If someone visiting the studio complimented her on a work and asked to acquire it, she would say, straight-faced, “You can have it…but not today.” And so it went, until two years ago. I began to feel an urgency about it. Strange, it’s not the kind of thing that I normally sense, but I just felt that I needed to push the issue. Ultimately, she was extremely gracious (and generous, frankly), and my family acquired four works created between 2002-2012. She thanked me for the work that I’ve done on behalf of Mormon artists, and she said she wanted me to have multiple works that, when seen together, meant something.
I’ve written a little about these works (as well as a brief biography of Ultra Violet) in the free ebook on our art collection (The Glen and Marcia Nelson Collection of Mormon Art). But maybe I can add a quick thought about one of the works now.
Hanging in our apartment is Ultra’s “Baroque Acrylic Quantum Mirrored Self Portrait (2012). It’s a mirror hanging in a (very) heavy acrylic frame that is cast from an old antique picture frame. With mirrored letters over the surface of it are two words “Self Portrait.” Many of the works late in her life are part of this series. It’s a meaningful work to me and to my family. My initial reaction to it was a literary one. I somehow imagined a benign Picture of Dorian Gray, and that over time my reflection would show what I had made of my life. My teenage children love this piece. They smile as they see their metamorphosing self portraits in the mirror. Of all the works in our home, it is the one that guests respond to the most and the most favorably. It just works.
But I was surprised to learn that it meant something different for Isabelle. She said, rather, that the work was about identity and democracy. On her website, she wrote, “The baroque Self Portrait mirrors created by Ultra Violet both empower and elude the viewers with their reverse images accepted as reality which, of course, they are not. Ultra offers the works of art as ‘everyone’s self portrait,’ as democratic illusion. The mirrors say, ‘You are real — you are not real — but enjoy your illusion.’”
I don’t think that a person’s art is more important than that person’s life. I feel lucky to have met Isabelle and to have been in the same Church community with her for over 25 years. Her life changed me and continues to affect how I think and live, but for people who did not know her personally, Ultra Violet’s art will suffice and will likely grow in power over time, if they will let it do its business. It is religious art: just as spiritual at its core as a narrative painting of a scriptural scene, just as sacred as if it were hanging in a church.
Her works could also be shocking. Although her views were conservative—I almost want to say “Ultra Conservative”—Isabelle was also aware that art has the power to change minds, but the first task is to get the viewer’s attention. In her studio in Chelsea, a small Campbell Soup can painting used to hang close to the front door. In the circle where the gold seal should be, Isabelle had painted a swastika. I cringed when I first saw it. But she explained that she once wrote a play about Andy Warhol, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Smith meeting in heaven. This was the connection.
To me, the most beautiful artworks she made were after 9/11. Deeply affected personally by the tragedy, Isabelle became a volunteer working at Ground Zero. Some of the Pop Art mannerisms faded from her work at that point, and images of a winged angel became a recurring symbol of heaven’s grace in the face of catastrophe.
I never asked her what she thought of more traditional Mormon art. She was certainly supportive of the work I tried to accomplish in shining a light on all kinds of work by LDS artists. The only thing she told me was that when she went through the temple for the first time—an important moment in the lives of Mormons—she had expected to see the most beautiful art that she could possibly imagine. She thought it would be something that perhaps she had never experienced before.
It seems to me that she was aspiring, in that moment and throughout the remainder of her life, to find a way to express it.