The artist stars in Chelsea and Times Square
Though Charles Atlas has worked in and mostly out of the art world for more than four decades, he still seems every bit the maverick. He has collaborated with Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, and Marina Abramović, as well as with Antony and the Johnsons, and Mika Tajima and the New Humans, spawning a new genre of “media dance” while creating many of his own live video performances.
It now appears that Atlas, long a cult figure, has moved closer to center stage. This month, he will open a solo show at Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea with a nine-channel video work titled The Waning of Justice (2015). Incorporating footage of sunsets, which he shot while living on Captiva Island as a Rauschenberg Foundation artist-in-residence, the work is only obliquely political, conjuring a mixture of references that evoke the fading of an era.
Yet it will be hard to top the exposure Atlas received last December when his video You Are My Sister (TURNING), 2014, played on 50 screens in Times Square. A collaboration with singer-artist Antony, the project reconfigured footage from a performance that highlighted the strengths and iconoclastic beauty of a troupe of downtown New York women—performance artists, transgender models, even a stunning mathematician—turning in place, evoking contemporary goddesses. The original performance was filmed and released as the documentary Turning in 2012 to wide distribution and critical acclaim. Still, it is a surprising choice for the Times Square Alliance’s Midnight Moment, projecting portraits of performers like Kembra Pfahler and Johanna Constantine on screens normally reserved for advertising and Broadway stars.
“Both Charles Atlas and Antony are exceptional individuals who have collaboratively created a work that conveys the many layers and diversity of femininity, beauty, and strength and that commands the respect of everyone’s communal sisters,” said Sherry Dobbin, director of public art at the Times Square Alliance.
“For years, I have imagined having my videos play in Times Square, so I guess you could say this opportunity is a dream come true,” says Atlas, 66, thrilled to see his work spread across the NASDAQ sign and the Marriott Marquis. When asked if this mainstream attention could dull the cutting edge of his work, he laughs, “I am too old to sell out.”
Orange is Atlas’s favorite color. He wears a splash of it on top of his head. Born in 1949, he sits in the spacious New York railroad flat where he has lived since the late 1980s. His editing-and-filming studio takes up what may once have been a formal dining room and parlor. His two cats sit nearby. In the back bedroom, Atlas’s domestic partner, poet Joe Westmoreland, starts his day. The two have been together since 1989, when they attended a DANCENOISE performance at La Mama on their first date. They met at the Pyramid Club where Westmoreland, wearing an orange sweater, attracted the attention of Atlas, sporting an orange leather jacket.
“I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I knew I was getting out of St. Louis,” says Atlas, recalling his unremarkable childhood, his years as an A student. His father was a traveling salesman and his mother, a housewife. He attended Swarthmore College, where he became involved in theater production, studied English, and thought he might become a professor. But then he visited New York just for fun one weekend, and succumbed to the lure of art and the city. In 1970, without graduating, he moved to Avenue C. His first job was as a proofreader at a law firm. During that time, he was also volunteering as stage manager at Judson Memorial Church, then the headquarters of avant-garde dance and performance art. A year later, when he learned of a job opening at the Merce Cunningham Studio, he applied for it and was hired.
“The only dance I had seen was Merce Cunningham, and the only reason I went was because of his collaboration with Bob Rauschenberg. So I was thrilled to get the offer,” Atlas relates, noting that one of the first Cunningham works he had seen was Winterbranch (1964), performed in darkness and lit by flashlights. “It was silent for the first ten minutes, and then the next minute was the most horrifying screech. Horrible.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he continues, explaining how that was okay in New York in those days. “Now,” he says, “you have to know right away and be successful at it instantly.” He was more than a little intimidated by Cunningham, who was already recognized as one of the leading American choreographers, but the two gradually began to collaborate. Atlas’s first job was to blow up silver pillows that had been created by Andy Warhol for the set of RainForest (1968), a sensation with six dancers. Atlas would bring a Super-8 movie camera along on tour and make little films in his hotel rooms. Eventually, he began filming the dancers and made his breakthrough when he filmed Walkaround Time (1968), a work choreographed by Cunningham and inspired by Marcel Duchamp. In 1974, when Cunningham wanted to incorporate video into his work, he invited Atlas to join him.
“When I made Walkaround Time, I had some ideas, and I was trying things, but it was definitely a first film. Everyone liked it, and everyone wants to see it because it is historic. It’s kind of embarrassing to me now,” Atlas says. He went on to study filmmaking on his own and learned many things about dance from Cunningham as they began to shoot and review rushes. “It was completely open-ended. We were funded to experiment, and that’s what we did.” He describes how they started with one video camera and one dancer, looking at the body on camera, even before they made a single piece. “We would explore all the possibilities of any given situation: What is the possibility if you have a dancer and a camera? What are the possibilities if you have two cameras? It was all about possibilities,” he says. The first piece they made together is called Westbeth (1974), in which Atlas filmed both close up and with great depth of field, finally layering images to create the equivalent of a montage.
“This early-on collaborative process and engagement with the medium was groundbreaking,” observes Jenny Moore, now executive director of the Chinati Foundation, who as a curator at the New Museum presented, in 2011, an installation called Joints Array (2011), in which Atlas reworked early footage of Merce Cunningham. Focusing on individual body parts—elbows, knees, ankles, and wrists—we can recognize that we are watching the choreographer practice his iconic moves, even though we never see his face. “What I find so inspiring about Charlie’s work,” Moore says, “is he is always making while he’s doing; he’s always learning while he’s doing; there’s an energy that is always present and palpable.”
By 1983, Atlas was production manager, lighting designer, and videographer in residence with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He was working with three cameras connected to a switcher, which allowed him to view three angles at once. It would take two months to complete a production, with Atlas on camera and editing and Cunningham choreographing. Every gesture was planned in advance. Atlas had already begun experimenting with swipes, blurs, and multiple exposures—effects that are now easily accomplished with After Effects software. He was also beginning to work with other dance companies and performers and wanted to stop touring and make his own films. After ten years, he left the company. “That was kind of treated as betrayal, but when I left, three people replaced me, one getting to do just what I wanted to do,” Atlas says, adding, “It was kind of traumatic.”
Atlas looks to subcultures and alternative art scenes for his ideas. After working with Cunningham, he moved to London, attracted to its club scene in the 1980s. Leading that scene was the flamboyant Leigh Bowery, best recalled as the Lucian Freud model, who always wore gender-bending costumes and face paint. Atlas, who had been introduced to the notorious London choreographer Michael Clark by American choreographer Karole Armitage, began working with Clark on lighting design and costumes. As a result of this relationship, Atlas was commissioned by BBC Channel 4 to make a feature-length “documentary” about Clark, from which the film Hail the New Puritan (1985–86) was born. A fictionalized account of a day in the life of Clark, the film stars Bowery, who, like many of the characters performing in it, spends much of his life getting ready to go out to clubs. Atlas then made a second film with Clark, Because We Must (1989), and a more conventional documentary about Bowery in 2002. The artist continues to work with Clark as a lighting designer, for which he has won top awards. Their most recent collaboration was a production at the Barbican in the fall of 2013.
“One of the motivations for making Hail the New Puritan was that I thought, ‘This just can’t last; you can’t live like this and keep dancing’—it was just too much fun,” says Atlas, who happily acknowledges his life as a “clubber.” Though he describes himself as more moderate than some of his companions, he looks back on London at that time as “the most interesting place to walk around the streets, because people just had a different sense of style, testing the limits of how far to go visually.”
Throughout the ’90s Atlas continued to collaborate with choreographers and make countless films, often working for television companies, such as WNET, WGBH, and BBC Channel 4, all of which set aside airtime for experimental productions. (In fact, he still works in television, producing segments of ART21 on PBS.)
One day, sitting in the office of Forensic Films, an indie-film production company, he overheard someone say, “Wouldn’t it be great if artists made porn films?” He promptly volunteered to do just that, and within the year he was shooting Staten Island Sex Cult (1999) in a brothel. “It is a pity that we don’t have documentation of the way we were getting this done because that was really hilarious, but we didn’t have a budget for a second camera crew,” says Atlas, noting that this was the first film he made that he edited entirely on his own computer. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘Here I am; I’m spending six months editing a porn film, and Bill Viola is having a show at the Whitney,’” he says, adding, “That’s the difference.”
Though Atlas had been included in the 1991 and 1993 editions of the Whitney Biennial, he didn’t have his first gallery show until 1999, at Xavier Laboulbenne gallery in Chelsea. Working in a site-specific way, he tailored his piece—four video “portraits”—to the exact dimensions of the gallery. Four years later, he took the whole concept of live video portraits a step further, taking over Participant Inc., a nonprofit gallery space on the Lower East Side, and turning it into his personal laboratory. He sent out an announcement tailor-made for exhibitionists, calling for people to come to the lower level of Participant and perform for his camera while he mixed their footage with other material and projected it live in the gallery space above. Among those who attended was Merce Cunningham, then quite old but still able to elegantly navigate the stairs.
“I was thrilled he wanted to work with us, and it was my assumption that we would do some sort of survey, but when it came time to plan the exhibition, Charlie’s wish was to show no existing work whatsoever,” says Participant director Lia Gangitano. “It was pure spontaneity. We had no idea what people would do at any given time.”
Indeed, since 2000, Atlas has gone live, mixing live footage with prerecorded material and projecting the results. His first attempt at this difficult feat took place at the Kitchen when critic Linda Yablonsky invited artists to provide visuals as authors were reading. “I was the only person who did something live for that. Most people just presented a video behind someone reading,” says Atlas, who recalls that the technology was still so rudimentary that he was literally inserting VHS tapes, rather than using a computer. “I just thought it was a progressive thing to do since the technology was going there.”
Since then, Atlas has pioneered another technological advance—using media to extend the qualities of performance. Now he seems irrepressible, often using an exhibition as an opportunity both to show historic videos and create a new live performance.
“What he has been doing—with all the technical skills he has on hand, with all of his theatricality and spontaneity, with all these gifts that he got from Merce and other dancers—has kind of freed him up from having to serve other people, and he has brought these abilities to the forefront,” says Elisabeth Sussman, curator at the Whitney Museum and cocurator of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, in which Atlas participated. To demonstrate how much Atlas will do given the chance, he orchestrated a live event with performance artist Johanna Constantine; presented a jumbo projection of Ocean (2011), his video of a 2008 Cunningham ballet staged in a quarry in Minnesota as a project for the Walker Art Center; and provided the lighting design for a dance performance by Michael Clark—all at the same 2012 Whitney Biennial.
“Atlas was one of the first people to think about the live feed and how you could manipulate that,” says Stuart Comer, chief curator of the department of media and performance art at MoMA. “He was doing a lot of mixing and very experimental approaches to how you could trace movement through a moving image. He wasn’t just turning on the camera and passively watching a performance.”
The year 2012 was a watershed one for Atlas, when in addition to participating in the Whitney Biennial, he saw the release of his feature documentary Turning and his first venture with Luhring Augustine gallery.
“I had the privilege of seeing how a lot of these ideas and techniques began and then became these amazing bodies of images that just get more beautiful and complex,” says Constantine, who remembers trying out the rotating platform for Turning in Atlas’s living room years before it was incorporated into the performance. A frequent collaborator with the artist, Constantine creates movements and costumes that she thinks will complement Atlas’s video-editing techniques, but she admits that a lot is up to chance. “Charlie and I trust each other implicitly. Like I didn’t know what images he would use, and Charlie isn’t sure what kind of costumes I would use,” she says. “That is what is so exciting about the live performances; we don’t know what it is going to be but we know it is going to be great.”
For Luhring Augustine’s inaugural show in its Bushwick, Brooklyn space, Atlas created Painting by Numbers (2012), a silent work composed solely of white numbers that swirl around like tornadoes against a black background. “I wanted to do something that didn’t look like anything I had ever done before,” Atlas says, “to see what rules I had unconsciously made for myself and break them.” He got the idea from the copious collection of notebooks he used for his films, filled with numerical notations for input and output codes. He considers this work possibly his most Atlas-esque because of that connection to his process.
“Of course, I am elated about all of the stuff that has happened for Charlie. I think it’s a testament to what a great artist he is that he takes every opportunity to experiment further,” says Gangitano. She adds, “It’s not about looking back and monumentalizing the past; it’s always about how each opportunity is a way for him to make something he hasn’t made before.”
When asked if she believes success will change Atlas, Gangitano replies, “He has always found a way to make his art and be who he is without the support of the commercial art sector, so it also is a big change for him to have all this support coming from places he never sought out. I always thought, ‘Great, Charlie can make a living doing broadcast television,’ and that’s what he’s done for the majority of his career, not relied on the art market, and I think it’s not going to change.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “Ready for Prime Time.”