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Houdini: Art and Magic

October 29, 2010 - March 27, 2011


Harry Houdini, poster of Houdini, Tim Lee
Through impossibly daring feats Harry Houdini (1874-1926) captivated audiences worldwide, and his legendary escapes instill awe to this day. Houdini: Art and Magic, the first art exhibition in an American art museum on the master magician, features magic apparatus such as his straitjacket, handcuffs and milk can, posters, broadsides, period photographs, archival films, and contemporary art work by artists such as Matthew Barney, Petah Coyne, Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz, Deborah Oropallo and Raymond Pettibon.

Harry Houdini, c. 1920
Gelatin silver print
10 x 8 1/16 in. ( 25.4 x 20.5 cm)
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, D.C.

The exhibition explores how Houdini's role as an American icon was transformed across three centuries, first in the late nineteenth century by Houdini’s own interpretation of his status, next by twentieth-century popular culture, and today by contemporary artists who conjure Houdini as an audacious performer and showman of raw physicality. The theme of escape animates Houdini's work and permeates the film footage, posters, photographs from Houdini’s day. While Houdini deliberately controlled his image, after his death in 1926 and his wife’s death in 1943, contemporary culture held sway. The magician was no longer an audacious apostle of grueling physical activity but a leading man with silver-screen appeal. By the 1970s his edgy performances that caused fear, excitement, and apprehension in his audiences at the turn of the last century was a source of inspiration for contemporary vanguard artists.

Houdini not only escaped from physical constraints and potentially deadly situations but was himself an exemplar of the American dream, escaping the past and succeeding in the new world. Born Ehrich Weiss, Houdini made an immigrant’s getaway from Budapest to Appleton, Wisconsin to New York. Finding the bright lure of the big stage greater than the austere pulpit of his father’s rabbinic profession he joined the circus, ultimately arriving on the national and international stage. Houdini's career and performances embodied key elements of the American archetype: hard work, ingenuity, modernity, and renewal. His significance as a Jew who became a popular phenomenon attracting huge crowds and a muse for contemporary artists and writers is extraordinary.

How well do you know Harry Houdini? (3/24/2011)
“My darling I love you” (2/14/2011)
Collective Magic: An Interview with Dr. Bruce J. Averbook (11/5/2010)
Collective Magic: An Interview with Ken Trombly (10/29/2010)
Collective Magic: An Interview with Jeff Taylor (10/22/2010)
Collective Magic: An Interview with Kevin Connolly (10/15/2010)
Collective Magic: An Interview with Arthur Moses (10/8/2010)

Related Links
Thirteen/WNET: THIRTEEN Specials: No Escaping Houdini (28:24, 12/16/2010)

Houdini Upside Down in the Water Torture ChamberHoudini Upside Down in the Water Torture Chamber, c. 1912
6 x 4 1/4 in. (15.2 x 10.8 cm)
Kevin A. Connolly Collection

Houdini Upside Down in the Water Torture CellHoudini Upside Down in the Water Torture Cell, c. 1913
Approx. 24 x 16 in. (61 x 40.6 cm)
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Collection

Tim LeeTim Lee (Canadian, b. Korea 1975)
Upside-Down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913, 2004
45 1/4 x 49 1/4 in. (115 x 125 cm)
Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, Courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee, 2006

Jane HammondJane Hammond (American, born 1950)
Untitled (221,181,275,156,227), 1991–92
Oil on canvas
76 x 70 in. (193 x 177.8 cm)
Private collection

Der Weltberühmte, HoudiniDer Weltberühmte, Houdini, c. 1912
27 x 36 1/2 in. (68.6 x 92.7 cm)
Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York,

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.

National Endowment for the Arts
media sponsor:

Produced in association with Acoustiguide made possible by Bloomberg


Special thanks to the following magicians for graciously donating their performances:

David Blaine, Adam Blumenthal, Steve Cohen, Lyn Dillies, Will Fern, Eric Goldfarb, Matt Holtzclaw, Joshua Jay, Rich Kameda, Michael Kirschner, Doug McKenzie, Jared Molten, Ben Nemzer, Ryan Oakes, Michael Patrick, and Prakash Puru.


Plan Your Visit

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