“I’m speechless,” said Ryan Estep, a visitor at the opening of “The Illusion of Democracy,” Charles Atlas’s show at Luhring Augustine Friday night. Mr. Estep was standing in front of Plato’s Alley, a 2008 video work by Mr. Atlas, comprised of a black and white projection of a grid of rapidly flashing numbers. The video was cast across several walls of a nook in the gallery the size of a small bedroom. An artist and art handler who works at a Chelsea gallery and lives in Bushwick, Mr. Estep was one of the first visitors to the show. He seemed mesmerized. “Things are coming toward me and receding. I’m blown away.”
This was a night of several firsts. It was Charles Atlas’s first solo show in New York, though he is an artist who has been working since the 1970s, when he began collaborating with Merce Cunningham. This was also the first opening of Luhring Augustine’s Bushwick location—the first outpost in the neighborhood of any Chelsea gallery. As the night wore on, and Mr. Atlas’s projections became swarmed by the silhouettes of the masses—both beanie-hat-donning Bushwick artists and slickly dressed Chelsea brethren—it felt like a historic event.
“We’re thrilled to have this exhibition,” said Lauren Wittels, a director at Luhring Augustine who is incredibly tall and was wearing skinny dark jeans. “So many people have followed Charlie for so long. To be his first major gallery show in New York is just an honor.”
When asked if she thought the opening of Luhring Augustine in Bushwick would mean more traffic to the neighborhood, she said, “Can’t say. We’ll see. I mean, I think tonight will be crazy.”
Mr. Atlas was quietly moving around the gallery in black jeans, white sneakers and a bright orange hooded sweater. His white hair was cut in a sharp line in the back, and he had an orange triangular marking on either side of his face.
“I haven’t had a gallery in New York in probably twelve years,” Mr. Atlas told Gallerist. “The gallery I had before,” he said, smiling and pointing to a corner of the gallery, “could probably fit in that space over there.” That’s all we got out of Mr. Atlas before a friend came up and kissed him on the cheek.
“Biesenbach’s here,” someone whispered.
“I’m just texting Marina [Abramovic] and Antony [Hegarty],” said MoMA PS1 Klaus Biesenbach, in a gray suit, looking up from his silver BlackBerry when Gallerist approached him. “They’re in the car, on their way over.”
“I love Charlie,” said Mr. Biesenbach, when he was done texting. “I think he’s both an amazing collaborator—look at what he did with Antony, or Marina, or Leigh Bowery. But then he’s also a great solo artist. And you normally don’t have this, have a person who can have a solo career and really kind of be themselves, and then be the best, best, best collaborator ever. I think what he did with Marina or Leigh Bowery is art history.”
Why so long for a solo New York show? “Everybody who’s ahead of their time, it takes a long time,” said Mr. Biesenbach, smiling. “But that’s the definition of being ahead of your time.”
Later, Mr. Biesenbach walked arm-in-arm with Ms. Abramovic, who was clad in a black dress. Antony, a lugubrious giant, was seen talking quietly with Mr. Atlas in front of Mr. Atlas’s “Painting by Numbers,” a 2011 video that shows an explosion of numbers in a psychedelic swirling pattern.
“You guys,” someone said. “The video only uses the numbers 1 through 6. There’s no 7,8 or 9.” We inspected it and found they were right. Later over email, we asked Mr. Atlas why he used only those numbers. He replied, “In this first work I wanted to make a piece about “number-ness”, something that I thought would exist even if human beings didn’t exist. In the end I was forced to use numerals, but I didn’t want the subject to be about numerals, so I limited the field to 1 through 6.”
Some flashes went off. “OMG. Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz are here,” someone said, of the art critics.
Some people seemed confused by Mr. Atlas’s work. Known for his multi-channel video installations, live electronic performances, and documentary film, this abstract work seemed different. “I’m confused,” said Mr. Estep, “as to where this new work fits in Atlas’s canon.” Another young artist claimed the work felt a little “old-fashioned.” “When I came in and I saw all the numbers,” she said, “I thought it would be connected to some live-feed, or the Internet. But it’s just an animation. Maybe I just have a very new-media approach.”
“At the time I started making the first of these pieces (Plato’s Alley, 2008),” said Mr. Atlas over email, “my goal was to make a piece that didn’t look like any other work that I had done before. I tried to imagine I was an unknown artist with a different sensibility—realizing of course that on some level it would probably be surprising but still be recognizable as my work by the people who have known my work through the years.”
Others weighed their observations against their expectations of the highly anticipated show and what it might mean for the Bushwick arts scene. “I actually thought it would be smaller,” said Peter Hopkins about the space, which Luhring Augustine purchased in 2010, to the consternation of local artists, and will use partly for storage. Mr. Hopkins runs The Bogart Salon, a gallery at 56 Bogart in Bushwick and recently held a salon on the topic of what changes a Chelsea gallery would bring to Bushwick. “I thought they were going to use less for the work, I thought it was going to be more storage. It’s really more about the work. But I didn’t think it was going to be this big. I’m very impressed.”
Mr. Hopkins looked around. “I think it’s better,” he said, of the mixed Bushwick-Chelsea crowd with a blend of triumph and despondency. “There are so many more types here that are rougher around the edges. There are still non-Chelsea types. But I don’t recognize every face. Which is good.”