Charles Atlas. Hail the New Puritan. 1986. 16mm film transferred to video (color, sound). Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. © 2023 Charles Atlas. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

“I start out with a situation or a place or a feeling.”

Charles Atlas

The work of pioneering filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas has brought together dance, performance, and media for nearly four decades. Raised in St. Louis, Missouri, he arrived in New York in 1970 at the age of 20, with ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. He was soon hired as an assistant stage manager and, eventually, a lighting designer at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, among the most important in New York’s avant-garde dance world. In 1974, Atlas became the company’s filmmaker-in-residence. While working for the company, he acquired his first Super 8 movie camera and began making unedited filmic works. Atlas eventually showed his cinematic experiments to Cunningham, and together they embarked on a number of filmic dance studies, performances for the stage, and Atlas’s own films.

In these first films, Cunningham and Atlas developed a new language for choreographing and filming what Atlas called “media dance”: in these pieces, the camera moves in concert with the dancing body, rather than remaining static and giving viewers a straightforward shot of a dance performance on a theatrical stage. In Walkaround Time (1973), Atlas presents Cunningham’s tribute to Marcel Duchamp, in which dancers move through transparent vinyl boxes etched with Duchamp’s drawings. Here Atlas underscores Cunningham’s exploration of “readymade” movements, incorporating footage of dancers chatting and relaxing. In Floor (1974), he captures dancer and frequent collaborator Douglas Dunn improvising everyday gestures on the floor of a dance studio, abstracting Dunn’s body into fragments by cropping it with the camera’s frame.

Since leaving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1983, Atlas has continued to make his own work. In the 1980s, he embraced the ready availability of video cameras, deploying techniques of live television and cinema such as long takes, quick cuts, and live editing. In his fictionalized TV documentary on the life of dancer Michael Clark, Hail the New Puritan (1985–86), Atlas put dance and drag performance on an equal plane, creating a new way to imagine the performing body and spotlighting underground queer subcultures in London amid the burgeoning AIDS crisis.

Over the course of his career Atlas continued to collaborate with Cunningham, Clark, and Dunn, and worked with Yvonne Rainer, Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik, and Marina Abramović, among other artists, dancers, musicians, and poets. He is currently collaborating with MoMA’s curatorial and exhibition design teams on the presentation of Robert Rauschenberg, a retrospective of Rauschenberg’s six-decade career. Atlas recounts that Rauschenberg, who collaborated with Cunningham on more than 20 performances from 1954 to 1964, was the reason for his first association with the company. “I went to see Rauschenberg’s work—that was my introduction to Merce. [Rauschenberg] has been my main inspiration all my artistic life.”1 Like Rauschenberg, who pushed the boundaries between painting, sculpture, movement, and performance, Atlas moved between film, video, and live performance, charting new possibilities for picturing dance.

Note: Opening quote is from Winant, Carmen, and Charles Atlas. “In Conversation with Charles Atlas.” In Michael Goodson and Johanna Fateman, Charles Atlas: The Illusion of Democracy; The Waning of Justice (Columbus, Ohio: Columbus College of Art & Design, Contemporary Art Space, 2015).

Jessica Bell Brown, Museum Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2016

  1. Helen Stoilas, "When Atlas Met Merce and Bob, Too," The Art Newspaper, November 1, 2016, 6.

Wikipedia entry
Charles Atlas is a video artist and film director who also does lighting and set design. He is a pioneer in developing media-dance, also called dance for camera. Media dance is work that is created directly for the camera. While Atlas’ primary artistic medium is video, he also began to experiment with live electronic performance in 2003. Atlas worked collaboratively with Merce Cunningham from 1975 to 1981. Before his time as the Cunningham company’s filmmaker-in-residence (1978 – 1983), when he made 10 dance films, Atlas was an assistant stage manager for the company, and was already filming Cunningham in little experimental movement studies during breaks from rehearsal. Following his work with Cunningham, he worked independently in film while collaborating with other professionals in the field.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Videographer and filmmaker worked closely with Merce Cunningham from ca.1975 to 1983, as an assistant stage manager, and filmmaker-in-residence. He worked with the British dancer and choreographer Michael Clark in the mid-1980s, producing a feature-length fictional documentary; "Hail the New Puritan." He has also worked collaboratively with Marina Abramovic and Yvonne Rainer. His video works have been exhibited in galleries and museums internationally; including the Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Artist, Video Artist
Charles Atlas
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


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