In the 1960s and 70s, Andy Warhol’s Factory in Midtown Manhattan was a playground for orgiastic artistic freedom, multi-media experimentation, and sexual expression. Warhol surrounded himself with enigmatic characters known as “Superstars”-collaborators, muses, and friends- all of whom played integral roles in his artistic vision and output. These artists, though they often exist only in Warhol’s eponymous shadow, made up the life and verve of the New York underground scene, and each had their own artistic visions, dreams for notoriety, and rich lives even after Warhol passed. Here is a look at some of these women’s artistic contributions in the 60s and beyond.
Brigid Berlin (AKA Brigid Polk)
Born into a world of privilege and prestige, Brigid Berlin, daughter of Hearst media chairman Richard E. Berlin, traded high society for New York City’s bohemian underground scene. She renamed herself Brigid Polk, a tribute to her habit of injecting amphetamines, and became a staple at Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s and 70s. Often thought of as Warhol’s closest friend, she sometimes worked as a receptionist at his Factory, but is most notable for her steadfast and meticulous commitment to documenting her life and that of her famous friends. She was one of the earliest adopters of the Polaroid camera and amassed thousands of photographs and tapes over her lifetime. In an interview with Gillian McCain, she said, “I taped the entire era.” Though she notably told The Wall Street Journal, “I am not an artist! I’ve always liked art supplies better than art,” a collection of her photos was exhibited at Invisible-Exports, and were compiled in a book published by Reel Art Press. She is also remembered for her “Tit Prints,” which she made by rubbing ink on her breasts and pressing them onto a canvas, and her “Cock Book,” a leather-bound Bible with blank pages on which she asked her artist friends to contribute phallic drawings. Her tapes of live performances also contributed to the Velvet Underground’s seminal album, Live at Max’s Kansas City. Her restless documentation and eccentric lifestyle not only made the scene what it was, but was invaluable in maintaining its longevity in the public imagination.
Isabelle Collin Dufresne (AKA Ultra Violet)
ULTRA VIOLET THEN & NOW
Directed by INDIRA CESARINE, Featuring ULTRA VIOLET, Interview by GARY V. KRIMERSHMOYS, Edited by JOHN PAUL ZUVIATE.-
Another rebel from a rigid upbringing, Isabelle Collin Dufresne was born in Grenoble, France to a strict Catholic family, before meeting surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and becoming his lover and muse. Dalí introduced Dufresne to Warhol in the early sixties, and he cast her in many of his films including “The Life of Juanita Castro” and “I, a Man.” During these days at the Factory, she earned the moniker Ultra Violet, for her dyed lavender hair and propensity to deck herself in purple. Later in life, though, she denounced the hedonism of her life in the 60s, describing her past self as an “unleashed exhibitionist chasing headlines” in her 1988 memoir. She returned to her religious roots, and became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her career as an artist in her own right, though, blossomed later in her life. One of her most memorable pieces is IXXI, a graphic palindrome she used to memorialize 9/11. Ultra Violet: The Studio Recreated, an exhibition featuring her later-career work, was shown at Dillon + Lee gallery in Chelsea in the weeks before her death in 2014. Through her multimedia practice, she explored the vanity of social media, modern ideas of fame, and themes of religious yearning. Ultra Violet outlived the men she inspired, and never ceased being creative, refusing to let her era of fame completely define her.
Known for her staggering height and persistent dark humor, Mary Woronov remains a multi-talented artist and personality. She studied sculpture at Cornell University before meeting Gerard Malanga, a filmmaker, poet, and Warhol confidant. She then moved to New York City and starred in an array of Warhol’s films, including the famous three-and-a-half-hour art house romp “Chelsea Girls” in 1966. She also was a devoted punk fan, and toured with The Velvet Underground, and can be seen dancing onstage with them in one of Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” films. After Warhol, she moved to the West Coast and became a cult movie star, with a long streak of roles in absurd, low-budget films, including the classic “Rock N Roll High School” and “Death Race 2000.” In the later decades, she also became an accomplished figurative painter. Referencing her later in life fine art renaissance, she said, “I never painted in New York. ‘You’re going to paint around Andy Warhol?’ I don’t think so — you’d have to be an asshole.” She’s also written five books, including novels, a memoir detailing her Warhol years, and a book of short stories.
Jackie Curtis, a Lower East Side born performance artist, once said of herself, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual — I’m just me, Jackie.” Sometimes performing as a man, sometimes as a woman, and often somewhere in between, Curtis was an unabashed pioneer of gender fluidity. Mainly a theatre artist, she performed and wrote plays at the La MaMa theatre, alongside other genderqueer artists of the time like Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. Her persona was crafted around midcentury mainstream movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck and James Dean, and she was known for illuminating the room with her cutting humor and electric physical presence. She is the subject of a 2004 documentary titled, “Superstar in a Housedress,” and was immortalized in Lou Reed’s 1972 hit, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Not merely a magnetic performer, actor Harvey Fierstein remembers Curtis’ playwriting chops, comparing her comedic work to that of Neil Simon and Woody Allen. An experimenter in glamor and underground avant-garde, her legacy lives on in the collective memories of her enigmatic peers.