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Press Contacts:
Alison Hendrie, Rubenstein Communications, 212.843.8029,
Amy Jacobs, Rubenstein Communications, 212.843.8077,
Anne Scher/Alex Wittenberg, The Jewish Museum, 212.423.3271,

Art and Magic
Opens at The Jewish Museum on October 29th

First Major Art Museum Exhibition
to Explore Life, Career and Lasting Influence
of Legendary Magician

New York, NY – Harry Houdini (1874-1926), the renowned magician and escape artist, was one of the 20th century’s most famous performers. His gripping theatrical presentations and heart-stopping outdoor spectacles attracted unprecedented crowds, and his talent for self-promotion and provocation captured headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. The Jewish Museum is presenting the first major art museum exhibition to examine Houdini’s life, legend, and enduring cultural influence from October 29, 2010 through March 27, 2011. Through 163 objects, including 26 recent works of art, exhibition visitors will explore the career and legacy of the celebrated entertainer while considering his lasting impact on contemporary art and culture.

Works in a variety of media by such artists as Matthew Barney, Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz, and Raymond Pettibon are on view as well as historic photographs; dramatic Art Nouveau-era posters and broadsides; theater ephemera; and archival and silent films illuminating Houdini’s role as a world-famous celebrity who commanded a mass audience in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Magic apparatus – rarely exhibited together – handcuffs, shackles, straitjacket, a milk can and a packing trunk are being showcased in the context of their original presentation. A recreation of the famous Water Torture Cell (much of the original was destroyed in a fire in 1995), and two of Houdini’s private diaries, never before shown in a public exhibition, are featured. Visitors can learn about 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. The exhibition does not reveal the “how-to” secrets of Houdini’s magic performances. Rather, it describes his audacious innovation in endowing common items with the aura of magic.

Following its New York City showing, Houdini: Art and Magic will travel to Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA (April 28 – September 4, 2011); Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA (September 30, 2011 – January 16, 2012); and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI (February 11 – May 13, 2012 ).

Contemporary art from the 1970s to the present is integrated with the historic objects, as the exhibition examines how the magician has served as an inspiration for a significant number of artists. Their works, including video, photographs, drawings, installation, sculpture, paintings, and conceptual works, cite different aspects of the Houdini legend: his straitjacket, handcuff and jail escapes; his metamorphosis and illusionist effects; his magic props and techniques; his physical endurance and masculine prowess; and the fables about his sudden death.

A highlight is Matthew Barney’s installation Cremaster 5: The Ehrich Weiss Suite (1997), an environment commenting on the brevity of life and the dissolution of fame. This room-size work – which visitors view through a closed, clear door – includes cuffs, an acrylic casket, and seven live Kite Jacobin pigeons. The pigeons deface the coffin as if it were an actual outdoor gravesite exposed to the natural world, indicating that nature endures while life is fleeting. Live birds are a vital presence in the installation as Barney points to Houdini’s fate and to human mortality.

The exhibition is drawn from private and public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of the City of New York; the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; the Harvard Theatre Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts; The New York Public Library; The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin; The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas at Austin; and Tate, London.

Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, Houdini was the son of a rabbi who immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin in 1878. From the beginning, Ehrich 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.

Ehrich’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 and married Bess Rahner, a Coney Island song and dance performer who became his onstage partner as well.

Over the next decade, Houdini rose to international fame through daring feats that involved seemingly superhuman physical strength and stamina. Throngs of spectators watched as he flailed upside down in a straitjacket or was tossed, handcuffed, into an icy river in a padlocked crate. He freed himself every time to wild ovations. Houdini’s breakout performances had real life significance to the American immigrant population who identified with the act of escape. An advocate for the magic profession, he served as president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death in 1926.

Houdini battled professional peers and copycats who were working 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. Contemporary magicians such as David Blaine, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, The Amazing Randi, and Penn & Teller have paid homage to the master and openly discussed their indebtedness to him.

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. Archival film footage of this feat catalogues his daring stunt. Film also provided an outlet for his showmanship – Houdini starred in a number of melodramatic silent films from 1919 through 1923.

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. He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, in a bronze casket fabricated for his buried-alive stunt.

Houdini: Art and Magic has been organized for The Jewish Museum by guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Gabriel de Guzman and Joanna Montoya, Neubauer Family Foundation Curatorial Assistants, served as exhibition coordinators. The exhibition installation design was created by set designer Anne Patterson with Sharon Davis Design Studio.

A 280-page catalogue is being co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press. The clothbound book contains 157 color and 45 black and white illustrations, and contributions by Ms. Rapaport, Alan Brinkley, Hasia R. Diner, Mr. de Guzman, and Kenneth Silverman. Essays on Houdini’s life and work are accompanied by interviews with novelist E.L. Doctorow, magician Teller (of Penn & Teller), and contemporary artists including Matthew Barney, Jane Hammond, Deborah Oropallo, Raymond Pettibon and Allen Ruppersberg, documenting Houdini’s evolution and influence from the late 19th century to the present. The catalogue will be available worldwide and at the Museum’s Cooper Shop for $39.95.

Produced by The Jewish Museum in association with Acoustiguide, a random access audio guide has been created for the Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition. It features an introduction by The Jewish Museum’s Director Joan Rosenbaum. The audio guide is narrated by actor, singer and magician Neil Patrick Harris and includes commentary by Ms. Rapaport; world famous magicians David Blaine and James “The Amazing” Randi; artists Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz and Petah Coyne; and University of Chicago Professor Emeritus of History and Art History, Neil Harris. Available to visitors for $5, the audio guide is made possible by Bloomberg.

Houdini: Art and Magic was generously funded by Jane and James Stern, Kathryn and Alan C. Greenberg, and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, with additional support from Rita and Burton Goldberg, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, the Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation, and other donors.

Corporate support was provided by Bloomberg.

The Skirball Fund for American Jewish Life Exhibitions, the Dorot Foundation publications endowment, the Neubauer Family Foundation Exhibition Fund, and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Exhibition Fund also provided important funding.

WNET.ORG is the media sponsor of the exhibition.

About The Jewish Museum

Widely admired for its exhibitions and educational programs that inspire people of all backgrounds, The Jewish Museum is the preeminent United States institution exploring the intersection of 4,000 years of art and Jewish culture. The Jewish Museum was established in 1904, when Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated 26 ceremonial art objects to The Jewish Theological Seminary of America as the core of a museum collection. Today, the Museum maintains an important collection of 26,000 objects—paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, archaeological artifacts, ceremonial objects, and broadcast media.

General Information

Museum hours are Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, 11am to 5:45pm; Thursday, 11am to 8pm; and Friday, 11am to 4pm. Museum admission is $12.00 for adults, $10.00 for senior citizens, $7.50 for students, free for children under 12 and Jewish Museum members. Admission is free on Saturdays. For general information on The Jewish Museum, the public may visit the Museum’s website at or call 212.423.3200. The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, Manhattan.

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Houdini: Art and Magic
Artists Represented in the Exhibition

Matthew Barney (American, born 1967)
Whitney Bedford (American, born 1976)
Joe Coleman (American, born 1955)
Petah Coyne (American, born 1953)
Bruce Cratsley (American, 1944-1998)
Jane Hammond (American, born 1950)
Tim Lee (Korean, born 1975)
Vik Muniz (Brazilian, born 1961)
Ikuo Nakamura (Japanese, born 1960)
Deborah Oropallo (American, born 1954)
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)
Sara Greenberger Rafferty (American, born 1978)
Allen Ruppersberg (American, born 1944)
Christopher Wool (American, born 1955)
Carol Yeh (American, 1938-1994)

Plan Your Visit

The Jewish Museum - 5th Avenue
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St
New York NY 10128