Opening Oct. 10, the exhibition brings together more than 125 films and videos for an immersive “walk-through experience.”

(Boston, MA—MAY 9, 2024) In October 2024, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) presents Charles Atlas: About Time, the first U.S. museum survey of pioneering interdisciplinary artist Charles Atlas (b. 1949 in St. Louis). The retrospective exhibition presents work created over 50 years, including a new sculptural video installation on view for the first time. It brings together key components of more than 125 films and videos in monumental and immersive multichannel video installations the artist describes as “walk-through experiences.” Encompassing themes of performance and portraiture, gender and sexuality, and collaboration and friendship, Charles Atlas: About Time is oriented around the artist’s groundbreaking work at the intersections of moving image, dance, and performance, and his intimate video portraits of close collaborators and friends. The exhibition is accompanied by a lushly illustrated catalogue featuring significant new scholarship on Atlas’s practice and co-published by the ICA and DelMonico Books. On view from Oct. 10 to Mar. 16, 2024, Charles Atlas: About Time is organized by Jeffrey De Blois, the ICA’s Mannion Family Curator, with Max Gruber, ICA Curatorial Assistant. 

“Charles Atlas originated the genre of ‘media-dance’ while working as filmmaker-in-residence at Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1970s and early 80s. This retrospective exhibition offers visitors an important and long overdue immersion into Atlas’s unparalleled and highly influential legacy in film and video art,” said Jill Medvedow, Ellen Matilda Poss Director. 

Charles Atlas: About Time is a historically significant retrospective, displaying the breadth of Atlas’s work through room-filling installations that collapse time within their structures and showcase the full scope of Atlas’s creative powers,” said De Blois. “Featuring ‘exploded views’ of the artist’s genre-defying works, this presentation reveals Atlas’s unique negotiation of time as a medium throughout his storied, 50-year career.” 

Atlas’s early career is defined by his time as filmmaker-in-residence at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York. There, he followed the circle of artists with whom Cunningham collaborated closely, including John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and others. Atlas and Cunningham pioneered the genre of “media-dance”—dance made for the camera, rather than an in-person audience—through a series of video collaborations of successive complexity. Following his time at the company, his works increasingly featured overt expressions of sexuality, especially gay and queer sexuality, and notions of gender that move well beyond constrictive binaries. Likewise, Atlas goes on to value every form of performance equally, from modern dance made for the stage, to drag shows in underground clubs, to today’s viral dance videos made for TikTok. 

Beginning around the time of friend and collaborator Merce Cunningham’s death in 2009, Atlas, an artist who always looked unflinchingly forward to the next project, began to look back at his vast archive of video to create new and increasingly personal works. Through this retrospective approach, Atlas creates “exploded views” of his earlier single-channel videos. Footage from one video is displayed in new spatial configurations on multiple screens and monitors, split into fragments, and edited together for dramatic effect as a “walk-through experience.” These installations are choreographed in space in a way that approximates the movements of the performers on-screen, inspiring visitors to move fluidly between and among them. The works reveal Atlas’s astute sense of architectural space—informed by his time working for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. 

Charles Atlas: About Time traces a non-linear arc of the artist’s practice from the early 1970s to the present, featuring works that highlight key moments from Atlas’s prodigious career, starting with his sculptural video installation, The Years (2018). In The Years, the artist imagines a stand-alone retrospective comprising 77 videos and films laid out across four flat-screen monitors that are displayed upright, like gravestones. On each screen, short excerpts of earlier works—organized into 12-year periods—scroll like the ending credits of a film. These include moments from the small, personal film Cartridge Lengths and Long Shots (1970); Son of Sam and Delilah (1991), which the artist describes as an emotional response to the AIDS crisis; Mrs. Peanut Visits New York (1992–99), which features famed performance artist, fashion designer, and nightlife icon Leigh Bowery; and What Does Unstable Time Even Mean (2015), a media-dance choreographed by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Reiner. Projected behind the gravestone-like monitors is a group of four expressionless young people staring unmoved into the distance. Farther behind them is a projection showing a starry night sky, as if the sun had already set. This heightens the theatricality of The Years, in which Atlas wonders openly what his work will mean to subsequent generations. 

Since leaving the company in 1983, Atlas has been a leading figure in film and video art, and one of the preeminent artists to capture dance and performance on camera through groundbreaking collaborations with Michael Clark, Yvonne Rainer, Leigh Bowery, Marina Abramović, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Reiner, among others. Much of Atlas’s genre-defying, collaborative work has proved prescient for a generation of artists working today. Contemporary concerns such as the creative possibilities of performance and portraiture on camera and the political urgency of challenging commonly held conventions of gender, sexuality, and queer identity have been at the heart of Atlas’s creative output for decades. 

Of her time working with Charles Atlas, Abramović said, “Putting together his over-the-top spirit of plenty and my minimalism, we brought to life three collaborative works: SSS, The Biography, and Delusional. Looking back, I can see now how this collaboration pushed me into a new dimension, liberating me from my own limitations and fears. Charles Atlas is a true original and innovator, helping us to see the world around us in a new way through his work.” 

Collaboration has been central to Atlas’s practice and his work. MC⁹ (2012) commemorates the artist’s long-term collaboration and friendship with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Created following Cunningham’s death in 2009, MC⁹ combines large-scale projection screens and sculpturally positioned monitors in a complex arrangement of newly edited material from Atlas’s work with Cunningham. The installation encompasses fragments of 21 videos from their 40-year collaboration, from Walkaround Time, Atlas’s first proper film documenting a performance in 1973, through Ocean, completed in 2010. Also included is footage of a gray-haired Cunningham dancing to house music around a ballet barre, his final filmed dance piece captured by Atlas. The monumental scale of MC⁹ in many ways conveys the scale of the artists’ creative partnership.  

Taking an approach similar to MC⁹, A Prune Twin (2020) adapts fragments of Hail the New Puritan (1986) alongside elements from Because We Must (1989), riffing on two iconic works in Atlas’s long-term collaboration with Michael Clark. One of Atlas’s most well-known works, Hail the New Puritan revolves around the anarchic energy of Clark’s countercultural milieu in mid-1980s London. The film—which Atlas refers to as an “anti-documentary”—purports to show a typical day in the life of Clark in Thatcherite London, albeit one that is highly stylized and fictionalized. Made two years after Hail the New Puritan, Because We Must was based on an original stage production at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, whose formal theatricality is counterbalanced by a behind-the-scenes narrative fantasy featuring Leigh Bowery’s extravagant costumes and production design. In 2020, Atlas created A Prune Twin—an anagram of New Puritan. This transposition of letters from the original phrase to coin the new title is analogous to the transposition of fragments from Atlas’s older works to imagine something entirely new. The baroque aesthetic captured on screen is perfectly complemented by a sense of irony that reflects the spirit and specificities of queer cultures in the 1980s and is now matched by the almost over-the-top sense of excess that this newly imagined installation brings to life.  

Charles Atlas: About Time also features The Tyranny of Consciousness (2017), a work that marries a montage of sunsets Atlas filmed at the Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island in Florida with a monologue by iconic drag performer Lady Bunny about the flowering of her political consciousness. In The Tyranny of Consciousness, Atlas synthesizes the social urgency and political consciousness of his portrait of Lady Bunny with the geometric patterns and repeated numerical sequences of his “number pieces”, uniquely tying together his overarching artistic concerns across decades to transformative effect. One of the numbers pieces, Plato’s Alley (2008), is a site-specific video installation and architectural intervention that will be displayed alongside documentation of other site-specific works.  

Finally, the exhibition will premiere a new multichannel sculptural video installation, a collage of portraits featuring musicians Sonic Youth, artist Marina Abramović, director John Waters, and choreographer Yvonne Rainer, among others. This collage of portraits conveys the extent to which collaboration and friendship have always been at the heart of Atlas’s decades-long practice. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a generous and lushly illustrated catalogue that generates significant new scholarship on Atlas’s practice, framed by the exhibition’s key themes and artworks. It features commissioned essays by leading scholars, historians, and writers discussing Atlas’s groundbreaking work and legacy: Erika Balsom, Joshua Chambers-Letson, Drew Sawyer, and Jeffrey De Blois, the exhibition’s curator. The catalogue also foregrounds the voices of a diverse group of artists reflecting on Atlas’s influence, including Nicole Eisenman, Eileen Myles, Jordan Strafer, Martine Syms, and Ryan Trecartin.  

About the ICA 
Since its founding in 1936, the ICA has shared the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, imagination, and provocation that contemporary art offers with its audiences. A museum at the intersection of contemporary art and civic life, the ICA has advanced a bold vision for amplifying the artist’s voice and expanding the museum’s role as educator, incubator, and convener. Its exhibitions, performances, and educational programs provide access to the breadth and diversity of contemporary art, artists, and the creative process, inviting audiences of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the excitement of new art and ideas. The ICA is located at 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA, 02210. The Watershed is located at 256 Marginal Street, East Boston, MA 02128. For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit our website at Follow the ICA on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. 

Media Contact
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Charles Atlas: About Time is organized by Jeffrey De Blois, Mannion Family Curator, with Max Gruber, Curatorial Assistant.  

With warmest thanks, we gratefully acknowledge the generosity of the ICA’s Avant Guardian Society in making this exhibition possible.