Houdini: Art and Magic

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Studio photograph of Houdini in white trunks and chains, c. 1905 Modern Photograph © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Untitled (193, 184, 141, 109), 1990 Oil On Linen. Collection Of Madeleine And David Lubar © Jane Hammond. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York
Houdini: Art and Magic
Curated by: Brooke Rappaport

736 Mission Street
(between 3rd and 4th st.)
San Francisco, CA 94103
October 2nd, 2011 - January 16th, 2012
Opening: October 2nd, 2011 11:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Daily 11 AM–5 PM, Thursday 11AM–8 PM, Closed Wednesday
contemporary art works, film, magic, posters, installation


Houdini: Art and Magic
The first major art museum exhibition to explore the life, career and lasting influence
of the legendary magician and escape artist

October 2, 2011 – January 16, 2012


San Francisco, CA, July 19, 2011 – Handcuffs, shackles, straitjackets, milk cans, packing trunks – nothing could hold Harry Houdini, the renowned magician and escape artist who became one of the 20th century’s most legendary performers. Possessing a talent for self-promotion and provocation, this poor Hungarian immigrant, the son of a rabbi, rocketed to international fame and grabbed front page headlines with his gripping theatrical presentations and heart-stopping outdoor spectacles – often dangling high above huge crowds or being lowered dramatically into an icy river locked inside a crate.

Now, the Contemporary Jewish Museum presents the first major art museum exhibition to examine Houdini’s life, legend, and enduring cultural influence. Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, Houdini: Art and Magic includes more than 160 objects including contemporary art works, historic photographs, dramatic Art Nouveau-era posters, magic apparatus, theater ephemera, and archival and silent films that allow visitors to fully explore the career and legacy of the celebrated entertainer.

His daring stunts come alive through wall-sized video projections and examples of original magic apparatus – rarely exhibited together – including a straitjacket, milk can, and Metamorphosis Trunk used by Houdini. Also featured is a re-creation of the famous Water Torture Cell (much of the original was destroyed in a fire in 1995).

The exhibition does not expose the “how-to” secrets of Houdini’s magic performances. Rather, it describes his innovation in endowing common items with magical qualities – everyday items such as trunks, crates, and boxes that had real life significance to other recently-arrived immigrants in his era.

Personal effects such as two of Houdini’s private diaries (never before shown in a public exhibition), along with family photographs, posters, film footage, and more, reveal the showman’s compelling life story – his escape from anti-Semitism in his native Hungary and an impoverished boyhood and his evolution from a fledgling circus performer in the 1890s, to a stage magician at the turn of the 20th century, to a daring escape artist in the early 1900s.

“Harry Houdini is extraordinary not just for his spectacular feats, but also for the obstacles he overcame to transform his life,” says Connie Wolf, the Museum’s director. “He was a cultural outsider who became an American icon – an inspiration to millions then and now. His legacy continues to fire the imagination of contemporary artists and countless others and we are thrilled to be sharing his story with Bay Area audiences.”

Contemporary Works in the Exhibition

The enduring power of Houdini’s legend is captured in the work of 26 contemporary artists who have been inspired by his physical audacity and celebrity, his props and illusionist effects, and the themes of metamorphosis and escape. Artists include Matthew Barney, Whitney Bedford, Joe Coleman, Petah Coyne, Bruce Cratsley, Jane Hammond, Tim Lee, Vik Muniz, Ikuo Nakamura, Deborah Oropallo, Raymond Pettibon, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Allen Ruppersberg, Christopher Wool, and Carol Yeh.

Bay Area artist Deborah Oropallo’s monumental paintings of Houdini convey a deep nostalgia for the Golden Age of magic performance. Her numerous Houdini paintings began with her early fascination with magic and the affinity between magic and art making. Oropallo says, “ Like painting, magic shares certain intangible qualities: illusion, sleight of hand, deception.” Several of her paintings including her monumental Escape Artist (Oil on canvas, 1993) will be on view as part of the exhibition.

Vancouver-based Tim Lee, who often inserts himself into a known tableau from a famous life, engaged a crew from the Canadian group Cirque du Soleil to create his photograph, Upside-down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913 (2004). Lee asked the group to bind him in a chair, upside down, and then was repeatedly raised and lowered while reading a book by Earthwork artist Robert Smithson. “I spent the entire day going up and down, up and down,” says Lee, who concocted this “absurd [Houdini-like] scenario” to consider the “idea of destabilizing your own perspective in order to come across a more appropriate one.”

Raymond Pettibon, an artist first associated with the Los Angeles punk rock scene and album covers in the 1970s and ‘80s, contributes several drawings to the exhibition. Text surrounds his images such as in a pen, ink, and gouache picture of Houdini hanging upside-down mid-trick. Written around the figure is: “Yet in that very power of adhesion to outward things, might be discerned the strength of a spirit destined to live beyond them.”

Sculptor Petah Coyne’s work Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini’s Chandelier) (1991) conjures Houdini as a savior – one who can summon his magical powers to release prisoners of war from their constraints. Coyne called her work Houdini’s Chandelier because it shared a suspended posture with the magician’s escape performances.

About Harry Houdini

Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, Houdini was the son of a rabbi who immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin four years after his birth. From the beginning, Weiss was drawn to illusion, performance, and spectacle. When he was 12, he ran away from home with the intention of joining the circus. Instead, he spent his teenage years doing odd jobs to help support his impoverished family, now living in New York City. Passionate about athletics, he trained as a runner, swimmer, and boxer. These early workouts paved the way for Houdini’s rigorous training routine as a magician and illusionist.

Weiss’s career as a professional magician began after his father’s death in 1892. He changed his name to Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Early on he performed card tricks and the Needle Threading Trick in which needles and thread are swallowed and then pulled from the mouth in a long threaded chain. But it was after he married Bess Rahner, a Catholic Coney Island song and dance performer, that his acclaim grew. She became his onstage partner for a short time, and together they performed the Metamorphosis illusion in which magician and assistant quickly switch places bagged and sealed in a trunk.

Over the next decade, Houdini rose to international fame through increasingly daring feats that involved seemingly superhuman physical strength and stamina. Acutely aware of the power of the press, “The King of Handcuffs” staged dramatic, free public events, frequently outside newspaper offices. Throngs of spectators watched as he flailed upside down in a straitjacket or was tossed, shackled, into a river in a padlocked crate. He freed himself every time to wild ovations.

Houdini appeared four times in San Francisco between 1899 and 1923. He was 25 years old and a relative unknown on his first visit where he played the Orpheum. By his third trip in 1915, however, he was a sensation and performed an escape from a chained box that was lowered into the water at Aquatic Park as part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. For his last visit in 1923, he performed his famous mid-air straitjacket escape suspended from the side of the Hearst Building at 3rd and Market Streets in front of 30,000 spectators.

Film was a powerful medium for documenting Houdini’s heroics and establishing his eminence. The Straitjacket Escape became the most chronicled and carefully managed performance in Houdini’s repertoire. Film also provided an outlet for his showmanship – Houdini starred in a number of melodramatic silent films from 1919 through 1923. His celebrity extended beyond the realm of magic. He was the first successful aviator in Australia in 1910, and fraternized with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Sarah Bernhardt.

Houdini battled professional peers and copycats who worked to duplicate his signature tricks. Many feats, such as the Handcuff, Milk Can, and Water Torture Cell Escapes, were copied and publicized by other magicians over Houdini’s objections.

An advocate for the magic profession, he served as president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death, and used his fame to debunk the widespread popularity of the quasi-religion Spiritualism. In lectures, writings, and even a Congressional testimony, Houdini contested the practice of using séances fraudulently to contact the deceased. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1924, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”

Houdini’s death, which occurred on Halloween in 1926, has inspired many myths: that he was poisoned, that he died in the Water Torture Cell, and that he faked his death and escaped. It is more likely that he had been suffering from appendicitis and died of peritonitis after suffering a blow to the stomach by a student visiting his backstage dressing room (the student had persuaded Houdini to allow him to punch the magician to test his strength). He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, in a bronze casket fabricated for his buried-alive stunt.

Following his death, Bess Houdini became custodian of her husband’s legend, as well as a fixture on the magic circuit in her own right. Houdini’s legend lives on in recent magic generations: David Blaine, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, The Amazing Randi, and Penn & Teller have all paid homage to the master. A film montage in the exhibition elaborates on Houdini’s influence on these contemporary performers. Houdini has been the subject of Hollywood and TV movies, inspired prominent fiction, and profoundly influenced visual artists.

Following its San Francisco showing, Houdini: Art and Magic will travel to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI (February 11–May 13, 2012). The exhibition debuted at The Jewish Museum, New York, in October 2010 and then traveled to Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA in 2011. Brooke Kamin Rapaport is the guest curator of Houdini: Art and Magic.

The objects and art works featured in Houdini: Art and Magic are drawn from many private and public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of the City of New York; the Library of Congress; the Harvard Theatre Collection; The New York Public Library; The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin; The National Portrait Gallery; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas at Austin; and Tate, London.

Published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, the exhibition catalogue authored by independent exhibition curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Houdini: Art and Magic (2010, 280 pages, 157 color and 45 b/w images, $39.95 hardcover), will be available for purchase in the Museum store. It includes contributions by novelist E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime; magician Teller (of Penn & Teller), and contemporary artists including Raymond Pettibon and Matthew Barney.

In addition, the store will offer a selection of Houdini-related books and magic-inspired merchandise.

Houdini: Art and Magic is organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and made possible by Jane and James Stern, the Skirball Fund for American Jewish Life Exhibitions, and other generous donors. The San Francisco presentation has been made possible by the generous support of Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and US Trust/Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead sponsors of the Contemporary Jewish Museum's 2011/12 exhibition season.