NEW YORK — It’s not easy being Colette.
“My whole life is lived on the edge,” says the multimedia artist, who began transforming herself into different personas in the Seventies, long before Madonna discovered the power of reinvention. “I was a woman and flamboyant. I used doll imagery and incorporated fashion into my work, and that was misunderstood.”
That may explain why the prolific French-Tunisian hasn’t achieved wider recognition. “I’m a part of the New York art scene, but I keep a foot in and a foot out,” she says. “The art world prizes dead artists. Women are still not equal.”
Colette, who often designs the clothing she wears for her performances, always dresses for maximum effect. On a recent morning, she answers the door to her atelier wearing an elaborately ruched one-sleeve pink dress, long black gloves, a feathered white hat and white platform snow boots.
“I wear clothes that take on the spirit of my art,” she says. “I’m known to dress dramatically.”
Colette’s living and work environment is drop-dead feminine. The loft’s walls and ceilings are covered in hundreds of yards of silk fabric. The bedroom, with its satin-covered bed, quilted pink pillows and profusion of ruffles, could be mistaken for a porn star’s lair if it weren’t so kitschy.
An early pioneer of on-location art, Colette started presenting tableaux in clubs and boutiques such as Fiorucci, where she slept in the store’s windows wearing a corset and little else and designed the store’s 1979 Deadly Feminine collection.
“A lot of my work was ahead of its time,” she proclaims. “I play with the blur of life and art. I’m a process artist and the process becomes part of the art.”
The line between Colette’s personal and private lives is sometimes imperceptible. Romantic entanglements have become story lines for her character studies. She’s even opened her loft to the public for performances. The artist also gives strangers a peek at the intimate possessions inside her closets when she uses personal objects in her exhibitions.
“The ApARTment,” Colette’s exhibition at HPGRP Gallery in the Meatpacking District, now through May 12, is based on personal habitats with clothing, artworks, photos and other detritus from her closet.
This story first appeared in the April 6, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Prior to the show’s opening, Colette said she was feeling “conceptual” and getting ready for her “next stage.”
Her career has been defined by stages when she inhabited different characters. Her incarnations had names such as Olympia, Justine and Lumiere. Olympia lived by a strict set of rules such as making art that “elevates the spirit and celebrates life, matches the furniture and promotes the return of the art patron.”
Aware that artists are more popular when dead than alive, Colette staged her own death as part of a 1978 exhibition at the downtown Whitney Museum of American Art, which had the practical purpose of allowing her to resurrect herself and sell Colette is Dead Co. products.
Colette’s commissioned portraits, photographs of her subjects, embellished with layers of paint, fabric, glitter and clear polymer, have helped pay the bills through the years.
It’s no accident Colette painted herself as Frida Kahlo, whose paintings didn’t sell while she was alive, but is celebrated after death. Colette understands the precarious position of women in the art world. “I’m not dead like Basquiat and Haring,” she says. “I could use some real support. My work is difficult to market and expensive to produce.”
In light of her background, Colette’s accomplishments seem all the more remarkable. She grew up in Tunisia, lived in Nice and Germany, then moved to the U.S. “I came from a very conservative family where I was expected to do things like marry and have children,” she says. “I had to run away from home when I was young. I created myself. One should always create.”