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Jill Krementz covers Houdini: Art and Magic

Houdini: Art and Magic
The Jewish Museum
October 29, 2010 to March 27, 2011

Harry Houdini
(1874-1926) was not only the most famous magician who ever lived; he was unquestionably one of the most famous performers of the 20th century. Born Erik Weisz, the son of a Hungarian rabbi, Houdini changed his name in homage to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the great French magician.

The legendary entertainer used everyday objects — handcuffs, sewing needles & thread, a packing trunk, or a milk can in his performances. He always closed his shows with the words: “Will wonders never cease?”

The Jewish Museum is the first art museum to explore Houdini's life, legend and enduring cultural influence. Curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, this exhibition includes archival film, historic photographs, posters, theater ephemera and works of art by fifteen artists including Matthew Barney, Petah Coyne, Raymond Pettibon, Vic Muniz and Jane Hammond. Also on view is a wide variety of magic apparatus.

Accompanying the exhibit are scheduled performances by contemporary magicians such as David Blaine and Ryan Oakes. On Sunday, November 14th, Mr. Oakes, who has performed at The White House, will be teaching sleight-of-hand magic and secrets of the trade. His performance, which is not to be missed, will be one of the many highlights scheduled for Family Houdini Day (noon to 4 pm).
Joan Rosenbaum, Director of The Jewish Museum.
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, who curated the exhibition. Ms. Rapaport describes Houdini as "the apostle of audacity."
U.S. Sign Board Co., Russell Morgan, Cincinnati
Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, Houdini, lobby display,
c. 1906
Oil on plywood
Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Houdini was transformed into a Hollywood hunk when portrayed on the screen by Tony Curtis.
Dana Tyler from CBS local news interviews David Blaine.
David Blaine, having been introduced at a press conference by Joan Rosenbaum, told the audience:

"I grew up in Brooklyn and my mother worked a few jobs. I went to the Brooklyn Library to read. I used to carry a deck of cards and one day the librarian gave me a book about card tricks. Then she gave me a book, The Secrets of Houdini. I started practicing different tricks. At school I was on the swim team and holding my breath until I almost blacked out. It was all because of Houdini. I owe so much to him."
Richard Kaufman, the well-known magic author. Mr. Kaufman edits Genii, The Conjurers' Magazine. Founded in 1936, it is the longest-running independent magazine devoted to magic and magicians in the history of the art. Genii is now a 112- to 120-page glossy color monthly whose columnists include Guy Hollingworth, Luke Jermay, Eugene Burger, Harry Lorayne, David Acer, Michael Close, Bob Farmer, Jim Swain, Jon Racherbaumer, Jamy Ian Swiss, Eric Mead, and David Oliver. Howard Kissel, author and critic. Mr. Kissel writes a blog for The New York Daily News website called The Cultural Tourist. " I saw the Tony Curtis movie when I was a young boy in Milwaukee and it haunted me for years."
Jan Aaron, travel writer, and Linda Guibert Ferrara, New York Correspondent for Bogart Magazine, Milan, Italy.
John Stetson, a mentalist Mark Mitton and Jason Kaufman. Mr. Mitton is a highly skilled magician who performs what is called "close magic," particularly with cards and jewelry. Mr. Kaufman is an art critic whose In View blog runs on Artinfo.com.
Ruth Beesch, Deputy Director of The Jewish Museum. Ms. Beesch oversees the museum's exhibition collection and educational programming. Brooke Rapaport and Barbara Hoffman of the New York Post.
Kenneth Silverman, author of a biography of Houdini, with David Blaine.
David Blaine performing a card trick sequence for Barbara Hoffman.
Houdini in Film
Houdini, 1953
Starring Tony Curtis as Harry Houdini and Janet Leigh as Bess Houdini
Directed by George Marshall
Produced by George Pal
Excerpt from film, 1 min. 12 sec.
© Paramount Pictures Corp.
All rights reserved
Houdini Straitjacket Escape, Boston, c. 1920
Archival footage, 1 min.
Courtesy of Kino International
Matthew Barney (American, born 1967)
Cremaster 2, 1999, with Norman Mailer as Houdini
Excerpt from film, 1 min.
Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York
Bridge jump with handcuffs, Rochester, New York, 1907
Archival footage, 1 min. 30 sec.
Courtesy of Kino International
Atelier J. Zier, Leipzig
Mysteriarch, c. 1915
Lithograph
Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

This poster depicts Houdini as a timeless figure, immortalized as an ancient god in the guise of the Mysteriarch — one who presides over mysteries — and the inheritor of the traditions of the magic arts. It is a powerful example of the use of lithography to market a rising icon.
John Cassidy (English, 1860–1939)
Portrait Bust of Houdini, c. 1914
Bronze
Museum of the City of New York
Vik Muniz (Brazilian, born 1961)
Houdini, Pantheon (from Pictures of Ink), 2000
Digital C-print, AP 3
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Vik Muniz’s Pictures of Ink series features several notables who are heroes to the artist including Houdini, comic actor Buster Keaton, and singer James Brown. Houdini has special appeal to Muniz because of the magician’s role as an innovator who always invented new escapes to outdo himself. According to the artist, “If you think of Houdini as a man of art, you have to think of him as a man of science. As most artists in the past, he is always working at the edge of technological development. He knew the latest thing that was invented in technology. That’s why I think when you see interesting magic today, you have to think about films, imagination. That is the continuation of Houdini’s legacy.”
Harry Houdini in chains, 1903
Photograph
Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
Harry Houdini, c. 1920
Gelatin silver print
The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Matthew Barney (American, born 1967)
Cremaster 5: The Ehrich Weiss Suite, 1997
Sculpture: acrylic, prosthetic plastic, Vivak, Pyrex, and sterling silver; Photographs: two C-prints and one gelatin silver print in internally lubricating plastic frames; Drawing: graphite, acrylic, and petroleum jelly on paper in acrylic frame; seven Kite Jacobin pigeons
Sender Collection

The Jacobin pigeons are provided and cared for by William Berloni Theatrical Animals, Inc. Mr. Berloni is also the Director of Animal Behavior at the Humane Society of New York. The health of the pigeons on view in this installation is monitored regularly. They are living in an environmentally controlled room and are given fresh food and water daily.
Closeup of two Jacobin pigeons.
Family photographs.
Hebrew Bible of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, 1892
Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
Houdini with his wife, Bess.

Born Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, she met an unknown magician named Ehrich Weiss in 1894 who, with his brother, Dash was performing under the name Houdini Brothers. She was performing a song and dance act as one of the Floral Sisters in Brighton Beach, New York. After a three week courtship, and despite objections to a Gentile daughter-in-law, the couple were married on June 22, 1894. Bess left the Floral Sisters and became her husband's new stage assistant and the act became The Houdinis. They gained notice with a trunk escape Houdini created called The Metamorphosis and began playing in leading vaudeville houses from the Midwest to California.

After Houdini died (on Halloween, 1926), Bess continued to hold séances for her husband with the hope that he would get in touch with her. He didn't.
Obituary for Harry Houdini, Jewish Daily Forward, November 1, 1926
Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Houdini’s travel diary, 1897–99
Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Harry and Bess Houdini with actress Sarah Bernhardt, c. 1916
Photograph
Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland

Sarah Bernhardt asked Houdini to restore her amputated right leg. The great actress had injured her leg after shooting a scene, which required her to jump off a wall. The injury never healed properly, and gangrene had set in.
Robert Gottlieb, who is writing about the exhibition for The New York Review of Books. Mr. Gottlieb is the author of the recently published biography: Sarah: the Life of Sarah Bernhardt.
Jane Hammond (American, born 1950)
Untitled (193,184,141,109), 1990
Oil on linen
Collection of Madeleine and David Lubar

The drama of the magician pulling needles on a long thread from his mouth inspired artist Jane Hammond to scrutinize the Needle Threading Trick. In her untitled 1990 painting, Houdini is poised to perform needle threading. Yet rather than needles, silhouettes of two women in antebellum dress emerge from his mouth as the magician balances on a tightrope with a spotlight shining behind him. The tightrope becomes a metaphor—Houdini is conceived as a breakthrough figure between the Civil War period and the modern era.
Collection of Houdini’s Needles and Thread, c. 1915
Metal and string
From the Collections of the American Museum of Magic, Marshall, Michigan
Ak Alam, who works in security and coat check. Narenda Nar Presad has worked as a guard for The Jewish Museum for nine years.

"This is excitement for me. I've heard of Houdini since I was a little boy. No, I don't do magic, but I could learn. If I could do tricks like him I would be famous, very famous, but right now I'm guarding his treasures."
View of the exhibition.
Metamorphosis Trunk, late 19th or early 20th century
Wood and metal
Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
The Houdinis, Original Introducers of Metamorphosis, Exchanging Places in 3 Seconds, c. 1895
Lithograph
Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Liebler and Maass Lithographers, New York
The Houdinis, Introducing the Only and Original Metamorphosis, Change in 3 Seconds!, 1895
Lithograph
Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Handcuffs, late 19th or early 20th century
Metal
Sidney H. Radner Collection at The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1999.25.1

As Houdini’s celebrity escalated, so did the market for his magic apparatus. While the use of common, recognizable objects in performance—such as needles and thread, a milk can, a packing crate, or handcuffs—distinguished Houdini from his peers in magic, it also made his tools susceptible to imitation and dissemination. Houdini was well aware of copycats and kept the creation and rigorous inspection of his apparatus secret, sharing information only with closest colleagues. Despite his efforts, replicas proliferated, especially handcuffs, because they were mass-produced items easily available to the public.
Water Torture Cell Escape

In performances like his bridge jumps and the Milk Can Escape, Houdini used water to terrify spectators. The sense of confinement and the prospect of drowning provoked viewers’ deepest fears. Posters advertising the Water Torture Cell proclaimed, “His Own Original Invention, The Greatest Sensational Mystery Ever Attempted in This or Any Other Age.” Houdini called the tall, glass-paneled box the “Upside Down” or the “U.S.D.” and its transparent face offered viewers a literal window into his watery prison. Biographer Kenneth Silverman has explained that after much practice Houdini debuted the Water Torture Cell Escape at the Circus Bush in Berlin in 1912: “In a typical performance, the curtain rose slowly on an eerily handsome setting: three assistants outfitted in gold-laced purple; four brass water buckets; the glass-and-burnished brass cell on its waterproof sheet, surrounded by a cloth-of-gold cabinet; a felling-ax stuck in a heavy woodblock, gleaming with menace.”
The formally dressed Houdini would then offer $1,000 to any audience member who could “prove that it is possible to obtain air” inside the cell.

In 1912, a brass-and-silver memento, on view here, was presented to Houdini to commemorate the Water Torture Cell Escape, which has since inspired generations of filmmakers, magicians, and artists. Hollywood erroneously depicted this escape as the cause of Houdini’s death in the 1953 movie Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. In the 1970s, magician Doug Henning escaped, manacled, from a Water Torture Cell, and most recently the team of Penn and Teller have riffed on Houdini’s Water Torture Cell in their act.
Water Torture Cell Presentation Piece given to Houdini, commemorating his performance at the Circus Busch, Berlin, 1912
Brass, glass, paint, cardboard, silver, and cloth
Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbrook, Cleveland
Houdini Upside Down in the Water Torture Cell, c. 1913
Lithograph
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Tim Lee (Korean, born 1975)
Upside-Down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913, 2004
Photograph
Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, Courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee, 2006

Tim Lee’s recent photographic self-portrait conceptually combines two of Houdini’s most punishing escapes, the Water Torture Cell and the Straitjacket. Lee was photographed upside down in a performance and then, to confound the viewer, displays the image right side up. The artist has said that this photograph is about “destabilizing your own perspective,” much as Houdini had done by literally turning his world upside down in two of his most famous feats.
Straitjacket Escape

In the late 1890s, Houdini accompanied a doctor to a Canadian psychiatric hospital where they witnessed a patient struggling desperately to free himself from a straitjacket. It was a transformative moment for Houdini, who grew even more fascinated with obstacles to liberation. He practiced the Straitjacket Escape until its outdoor public debut, probably in 1915, in front of the Minneapolis Evening Tribune building. These outdoor escapes were Houdini’s most documented achievements. He regularly performed them outside the offices of America’s great newspapers in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, and San Francisco. Reporters and photographers exploited the events just outside their windows for newspaper sales, and Houdini often arranged for films of these feats to be shot from multiple angles. Throngs of spectators witnessed the free outdoor shows, and his later indoor theater appearances regularly sold out.
The unusual image of a man freeing himself from a straitjacket powerfully evoked the escape from adversity experienced by many immigrants. Disquieting imagery of a constrained and struggling Houdini appealed to today’s contemporary artists, several of whom were inspired by his straitjacket performances.
Whitney Bedford (American, born 1976)
Houdini (Upside Down), 2007
Ink and oil on unprimed paper
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by Susan and Larry Marx

Whitney Bedford’s life-size portrait captures the moment in the Straitjacket Escape when the suspended Houdini extends his arms, releasing the straitjacket at the end of a performance. This work is a faithful rendering of a period image, and Bedford’s palette even mimics the black-and-white film of historic photographs. Like a fading picture, this work is a disappearing act: the image, which is painted with ink and oil on an unprimed surface, will eventually fade away as medium sinks into unprimed paper. Bedford has cited parallels between “how an artist uses tricks and how a magician uses tricks.” She said recently that she is “much more indebted to this kind of pageantry of show performance” than to the work of some great painters.
Houdini with Spirits, c. 1924
Photograph
Collection Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
Joe Coleman (American, born 1955)
The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Harry Houdini), 1995
Acrylic on Masonite
Collection of David and Rhonda Denholtz

Joe Coleman’s placid escape artist emerges from a portrait of his mother, Cecilia Weiss. “He’s growing out of her head,” Coleman explained. “I thought of a gender switch: like Zeus giving birth to Athena. Houdini is coming out of her head or mind.” Houdini’s airplane (which he flew in Australia in 1910), the Brooklyn Bridge (alluding to his famous bridge jumps), handcuff escapes, and the Water Torture Cell are all featured in this meticulously rendered composition. A pocket-size Bess stands at his right side, in cape and costume, saluting her husband.
Deborah Oropallo (American, born 1954)
Magician’s Code, 1990
Oil on canvas
Collection of Samuel and Ronnie Heyman

Deborah Oropallo creates works with accompanying text that imply a narrative. Her Magician’s Code depicts a blindfolded magician and shows how certain words stand for certain letters when a magician works with an assistant to decode the thoughts of audience members.
Installation view.
Allen Ruppersberg (American, born 1944)
Missing You, 1972
Five magic tables, four books, one vintage color photo
Courtesy of the artist and Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles

Allen Ruppersberg created a number of works related to Houdini, including the installation Missing You. William Gresham’s 1959 biography, Houdini: The Man Who Walked through Walls, progressively disappears (it shrinks in size) until it has completely vanished, only to magically reappear in the photo of a table at Denny’s, the American restaurant chain. The work is a humorous appraisal of magic using the magician as the subject who disappears and rematerializes in a new venue.
Raymond Pettibon’s drawings are episodic tales in one-panel cliffhangers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, his work was associated with the Los Angeles punk rock scene, where he created record album covers.

His intense focus on drawing, first likened to comic books, transformed into a rich dialogue between image and text. Pettibon incorporates wide-ranging figures from mass culture into his art. The artist has mentioned Houdini, John Dillinger, Jimmy Piersall, Babe Ruth, and Lee Harvey Oswald as famous and infamous Americans who resonated in his youth.

“They are archetypes, figures that I grew up with at a distance. Somehow [Houdini] resonated with me .... He’s definitely in the Charles Lindbergh category of figures who still resonate because everything dwindles somewhere. To me, he’s still vibrant.”
  Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)
No Title (With each fading), 1991
Pen and ink on paper
Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)
No Title (One arm freed), 2001
Pen and ink on paper
Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)
No Title (The Desire to), 2009
Pen, ink, and gouache on paper
Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)
No Title (All agreed that), 2009
Pen, ink, gouache, and acrylic on paper
Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Petah Coyne (American, born 1953)
Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini’s Chandelier), 1991
Mixed media
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Rothfeld Family in memory of Harriet Weill Rothfeld

In her hanging sculpture, Petah Coyne summons the suspended posture of Houdini’s Straitjacket Escape. She invokes the power of magic in her sculpture, choosing Houdini as a subject to suggest the miraculous release of war prisoners from their constraints: “If they could all disappear from [oppression], spin around, and leave their clothing the way he left his straitjacket, what an amazing thing.”
Christopher Wool (American, born 1955)
Untitled (Houdini), 1985
Enamel on plywood
Private collection, Seattle

Christopher Wool’s Untitled (Houdini) deploys illusion and abstraction to confront the mysteries of magic. Black and silver gestures push the viewer to locate an unrecognizable image behind a façade of all-over paint.
Ikuo Nakamura (Japanese, born 1960)
Materialization, 2009
Hologram and metal
Collection of the artist, Brooklyn; milk can courtesy of Cannon’s Great Escapes

Ikuo Nakamura uses holography to instill Materialization with a magical quality. Holograms are made of a photographic material that evoke three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional piece of film. Materialization is an installation based on Houdini’s well-known Milk Can Escape. As fingers reach up from inside the milk can, they emphasize the illusion of materializing form. The pair of hands is caught between liberation from constraints and the oppression of confinement.
Houdini paraphernalia in the museum's gift shop
Rebecca Rozen, the keeper of the gift shop.
Magic set.
The back of a Houdini T-shirt. Houdini buttons
Books on sale in the gift shop.
Houdini coffee mugs. The Secret Life of Houdini by Larry Kalush & Larry Sloman.
Houdini's own A Magician Among The Spirits.
Escape! by Sid Fleischman. Tony Curtis/Janet Leigh DVD.
The exhibition catalogue, Houdini: Art and Magic, by Brooke Kamin Rapaport with contributions by Alan Brinkley, Gabriel de Guzman, Hasia R. Diner and Kenneth Silverman.

There are additional interviews with novelist E.L. Doctorow, magician Teller (of Penn and Teller) and most of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibition. 280 pp; 157 color & 45 b/w illustrations; Paper over board: $39.95.
On Friday afternoon, David Blaine performed in the auditorium for kids and grown-ups alike ...
Curator Brooke Rapaport with her son. Tess Judge, 13-year-old Middle School student in Westchester.
Fifth Grade students from St. Bernard's school.
A young student volunteers to lock up David Blaine. Andrew Judge assists in the process. Chains and authentic police locks were used for this performance piece.
Blaine demonstrates how to pick a lock.
After Blaine frees himself, a volunteer gets handcuffed and taught how to pick a lock.
One more volunteer for the handcuffs. Kids of ALL ages came to watch David Blaine perform. The grown-up is Margaret Streicker Porres, a trustee of The Jewish Museum.
Time for a few card tricks.
Signing a dollar bill.
My brain is the key that sets my mind free.
  — Harry Houdini
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz; all rights reserved.




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