Charles Atlas isn’t simply a great artist, he’s a great New York artist. Without the videos, films, and installations he’s produced over the past forty-odd years, this city might not know the half of itself. The self-taught Atlas has always trained his lens on the rarest, most brilliant birds — choreographers, performance artists, singers, dancers — capturing moving portraits that are, in essence, collaborative works of art. “You really have to respect, trust, and love the people you’re working with,” he told frieze magazine in 2011, “and then it works out.”
One of Atlas’s first and best-known co-
conspirators was choreographer Merce Cunningham. The two began working together in the early 1970s to solve the challenge of how to film dance without draining its life force. Their solution: a hybrid genre they called “media dance,” in which a performance is constructed both on stage and in camera, creating a document possessed of the palpable energy of the movements and rhythms of bodies in space and time.
It’s this life force that has always distinguished Atlas’s art (luhringaugustine.com/artists/charles-atlas), and which might in fact be his true medium. His Hail the New Puritan of 1985–86 is a tour de force genre-bender, a feature-length film that constructs “a day in the life” of Scottish bad boy ballet dancer/choreographer Michael Clark and his company from the rehearsal studio to the streets of Thatcher-era London to the stage. This is no simple documentary: Atlas’s film softens the edges between person and persona, and between life and performance, capturing Clark et al. as though suspended in a world wholly of their own making. Many of Atlas’s muses have been resplendently queer: Where Cunningham’s sexuality was perhaps more covert, Clark let it all hang out (literally and figuratively). Atlas’s work with Leigh Bowery, the luminary performance artist and designer, captured the Technicolor wonderland of Bowery’s outrageously beautiful being: his outer-space “drag” and reimagining of the body. Like any great portrait artist, Atlas knows that what is put on — whether makeup or clothes or a pose — is as vital as anything beneath it.
Atlas’s body of work features a seemingly endless list of avant-gardians: Yvonne Rainer, Douglas Dunn, John Kelly, Marina Abramovic, Karole Armitage, Mika Tajima and New Humans, and Antony Hegarty, to name a few. Hs newer work reflects the darker tones American culture has taken: The 2015 multi-channel video installation “The Waning of Justice” features the opalescent Lady Bunny talking global politics while words like “UTOPIA” and “HISTORY” are superimposed on apocalyptic-looking sunsets. Tender, sad, absurd: Such is the passage of time and the inevitable losses it brings. To catch sight of Atlas’s work now rather than wait for his next show, feast your eyes on his 1991 trilogy, What I Did Last Summer, currently on view at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, 212-570-3600, whitney.org). You’ll wish this entire city still looked like Mr. Atlas’s neighborhood.