Last month Prestel Publishing and Luhring Augustine Gallery co-published Charles Atlas, a 304-page monograph that, surprisingly, is the first major publication dedicated to the New York-based artist whose work in film, performance and installation spans four decades. Perhaps best know for his seminal collaborations with Merce Cunningham, Atlas has also joined forces with such diverse figures as Marina Abramović, Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Michael Clark. His current exhibition, "The Waning of Justice" (through Mar. 14th at Luhring Augustine) features Lady Bunny. In addition to a wall-sized video projection of the iconic drag queen delivering a feisty political polemic, the two-room installation features sunset-over-water imagery that the artist shot in Florida while on a Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island. A.i.A. had a chance to speak to Atlas via telephone in New York, the day before he flew to Los Angeles for a lecture tour.
1) The design of your monograph's cover—the choice of the photo with the addition of random silver spots—seems fully loaded with all things Atlas. Can you tell me more about the image?
That's a photo of me, in 2011, doing a live-video mix during a ten-day installation with performances called The Pedestrians. I did it in collaboration with the artist Mika Tajima at the South London Gallery. It's all about walking. Gallery visitors could come and go while we worked. The set was moveable. The process involved rehearsals for performances, the performances themselves, a lecture about walking, a march, cheerleaders, police cadets, a demonstration and the finale, a parade. In that particular image, as the audience sits on the floor in the middle, you can see John Smith, the filmmaker, as a guest vocalist for Mika's band New Humans. I started using spots in my film Hail the New Puritan (1986). Leigh Bowery had a certain look: spots painted all over his face and clothes and hands. That became part of the costume and set design for Michael Clark's choreography in my film. I've been using spots on and off ever since.
2) What about your choice of color?
Orange is my color! Back in the '80s—I'm very bad with dates—I was designing a ballet called Paradise. At that time orange was really out of fashion. It was the only color I really hated. So I decided to challenge myself and do an all-orange ballet. The costumes, lights and set were various shades of orange. The dancers had the same prejudice; they hated wearing it. So that's when it hit me: I started wearing orange in support of my new color. I used to favor red but after I started wearing orange I thought red was unsophisticated. Eventually I started painting my sideburns orange and they stayed that way.
3) We need to talk about Robert Rauschenberg.
He's my idol. I first went to see Merce Cunningham because of Bob. When I was with Merce's company in the mid ‘70s I had to re-realize old works Bob had made. The fact that I admire him and his work had nothing do with my luck in being invited to the Rauschenberg Residency. That's just a happy coincidence. In the summer of 2013, I was working on a project with the choreographer Douglas Dunn. Douglas and I stayed in Bob's house, so the images of the setting sun in the new show are the views I saw from Bob's porch. I knew I would use them eventually but I wasn't sure how. At the time I thought they would just be a video backdrop that I would eventually put something over. Then, in another coincidence, I went back exactly a year later and stayed at the same house, so I had two years of sunsets. I wasn't planning to use the setting suns with Lady Bunny—who I've always wanted to work with—but when I started to structure the show all the elements started coming together.
4) The titles of your two Luhring Augustine shows—"The Illusion of Democracy" at the Bushwick outpost in 2012 and "The Waning of Justice" on view now in Chelsea—are linked thematically. But the installations appear to be the work of two different artists. "Illusion" was composed of cold, abstract numbers. "Waning" is series of warm sunsets linked to a very colorful and very flaming tirade. Where's the continuity between these two bodies of work?
The number pieces were a huge departure for me. To work without human bodies or performance was a radical choice. At the time I was dealing with multiple retrospectives and was getting tired of looking at my old work. I decided I wanted to do something that looked like someone else had made it—a show that was completely numbers. When the gallery asked me to come up with a title a few things occurred to me: I was making work that was totally abstract, even though I'm politically progressive. I often reflect upon the fact that democracy is disappearing, but that sort of subject matter does not appear in my work very much. I thought that the show's title could be a way to address the public in addition to the show itself. So a title isn't necessarily tied to a show but it is to the artist. The continuity is me!
5) It must have been a dream come true to have You Are My Sister (TURNING), a collaborative work consisting of your remixed video portraits of women paired with Antony's music, on view in December in Times Square. A stage for performance doesn't get much bigger than that. Do you have an ultimate dream collaborator?
Well, actually, in Times Square, I felt confused. In that environment it's impossible to do anything that stands out. It just absorbs everything. My experience of that particular space was, gee, this is hard to take in. One thing did please me: It took 10 years, from the time I originally made those images of downtown women—some transgendered, some just arty—to finally bring them uptown. Some of them even brought their mothers to see it! That was a thrill. As to the question, I tend to work with people that I know, although I am open to doing new things. I don't have any dream collaboration in mind. But I definitely don't want to do the next Lady Gaga video.