Open Thursday: 12:00 PM - 6:00 PM

Close Menu

Houdini: Art and Magic

February 11, 2012 – May 13, 2012

installation view of Houdini: Art and Magic featuring framed artworks hanging on walls and title wall text
installation view of Houdini: Art and Magic featuring artworks and vinyl images on walls and a trunk on a platform
installation view of Houdini: Art and Magic featuring framed artworks and a long vitrine display case
installation view of Houdini: Art and Magic featuring framed artworks and a trunk on a platform for display


Harry Houdini (1874–1926), the renowned magician and escape artist, was one of the twentieth 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.

Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, Houdini: Art and Magic is the first major art museum exhibition to examine Houdini’s life, legend, and enduring cultural influence. MMoCA will be the only Midwest venue for the exhibition, which illuminates Houdini’s evolution from fledging circus performer to internationally renowned escape artist to muse and inspiration for contemporary artists.

The exhibition includes works in a variety of media by contemporary artists who have been influenced by Houdini, 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Magic apparatus, including handcuffs, shackles, a straitjacket, a milk can, and a packing trunk are 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) will also be on view, as will two of Houdini’s private diaries, never before shown in a public exhibition.

Twenty-three works by esteemed contemporary artists are included in the exhibition. These works, which date from the 1970s to the present, are integrated with the historic objects, as the exhibition examines how Houdini has served as a continuing cultural inspiration. Contemporary works in the exhibition, which include 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.

Contemporary artists represented in the exhibition are 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, and Christopher Wool.

Exhibition Support

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 lead corporate sponsor for the Wisconsin presentation of Houdini: Art and Magic is BMO Harris Bank.

Major support for the Wisconsin presentation has been provided by Mary Ellyn and Joe Sensenbrenner; the David and Paula Kraemer Fund; The DeAtley Family Foundation; Mildred and Marv Conney; The Marcus Corporation; Marvin Levy; The Steinhauer Charitable Trust; Bruce Rosen and Diane Seder; Mark and Ilene Laufman; Karen and Harry Roth; Woodman’s Markets; the Wisconsin Department of Tourism; Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission; Newcomb Construction Company; Potter Lawson, Inc.; American Furniture, Electronics and Appliances; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.