Houdini: Art and Magic
February 11, 2012 to May 13, 2012

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.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will present Houdini: Art and Magic from February 11 to May 13, 2012, in the museum’s main galleries. 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

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.

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.

The Life of Harry Houdini

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 escape artist.

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 on-stage 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.

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.

Exhibition History and Catalog

Houdini: Art and Magic was organized for The Jewish Museum, New York, by guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Prior to its appearance at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition was on view at The Jewish Museum from October 29, 2010, through March 27, 2011, before traveling to the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA (April 28–September 4, 2011); and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA (September 30, 2011–January 16, 2012).

A 288-page clothbound catalog co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press accompanies the exhibition. The catalog 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 and 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 nineteenth century to the present. The catalog is available worldwide and at MMoCA’s Museum Store for $39.95.

MMoCA’s Houdini Store

MMoCA’s award-winning Museum Store will celebrate Houdini: Art and Magic with a “Magic Annex” on the second-floor landing, just outside the main galleries. Shoppers will find magic tricks, books and DVDs, posters, and other merchandise sure to please Houdini fans, amateur magicians, and lovers of illusion.


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; Madeleine and David Lubar; Bruce Rosen and Diane Seder; Mark and Ilene Laufman; Rona and Harvey Malofsky; 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. 

The MMoCA Nights opening of Houdini: Art and Magic is sponsored by BMO Harris Bank; Newcomb Construction Company; and The Alexander Company; with media support from Isthmus|TheDailyPage.com.


Houdini (2000)
Drawing on remarkable film footage and photographs, this documentary chronicles Houdini’s extraordinary life and career. Produced by PBS for the American Experience series, Houdini will be screened continuously in the Learning Center in the museum’s main galleries. MMoCA’s Learning Centers include books related to exhibitions on view, as well as innovative, easy-to-use discovery activities that encourage families to be creative together.

Saturdays, February 11–May 5, excluding April 7 ∙ 1–1:30 pm
Drop-in Tours
Led by MMoCA docents, these 30-minute tours will consider Houdini’s craft and notoriety in relation to contemporary artworks in the exhibition.

Friday, February 10 ∙ 6:30–7:30 pm 
Brooke Kamin Rapaport on Houdini: Art and Magic
A Lussier Family Lecture
Independent curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport will consider Houdini’s evolution from struggling performer, to world-famous marquee entertainer and Hollywood leading man, to muse for contemporary filmmakers, performance and installation artists, painters, and sculptors. Rapaport organized Houdini: Art and Magic for The Jewish Museum, New York.

Sunday, February 12 ∙ 1–2:30 pm
Kids’ Art Adventures
Much of the contemporary artwork in Houdini: Art and Magic embraces the sense of mystery surrounding Houdini’s performances. Magician Lou Lepore will delight children and adults alike with his unique blend of comedy and magic. Afterward, participants in this Kids’ Art Adventure will create a mystery box inspired by Houdini’s Metamorphosis Trunk. What will be inside your box? Six- to ten-year-olds should meet promptly at 1 pm in MMoCA’s lobby; children must be accompanied by an adult. Space at Kids’ Art Adventures is limited to thirty children and available on a first-come, first-served basis. more »

Friday, February 24 ∙ 7–8 pm 
Repeated Saturday, February 25 ∙ 2–3 pm
Cremaster 5 (1997)
The Cremaster Cycle is Matthew Barney’s epic series of five non-linear films that combine autobiography with history, allegory, and fantasy. For Houdini: Art and Magic, MMoCA will screenCremaster 5 and Cremaster 2, the third and fourth films in the cycle, for their particular references to Harry Houdini, described by Brooke Kamin Rapaport as Barney’s “muse and alter ego.” Cremaster 5 is set in romantic late-nineteenth-century Budapest—Harry Houdini’s birthplace. Operatic in tone and scope, and performed without dialogue, Cremaster 5 presents Ursula Andress as the Queen of the Chain, and Matthew Barney as Diva, Magician, and Giant. Free for MMoCA members/$7 for nonmembers. more »

Friday, March 2 ∙ 6:30–7 pm
Lauren Kroiz on Harry Houdini’s American Escapes
Lauren Kroiz will locate Houdini’s magic within its turn-of-the-century Progressive-era context and examine the notion of miraculous self-liberation as a defining element of American identity for Houdini’s audiences then and contemporary artists now. Kroiz is assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Friday, March 23 ∙ 7–8:30 pm 
Repeated Saturday, March 24 ∙ 2–3:30 pm
Cremaster 2 (1999)
See description of The Cremaster Cycle above. Cremaster 2 is a visual re-telling of The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s story of convicted killer Gary Gilmore. Filmed in the style of a gothic Western, Cremaster 2 features Mailer as Harry Houdini and Barney as Gilmore. Free for MMoCA members/$7 for nonmembers. more »

Sunday, April 15 ∙ 1–2:30 pm
Kids’ Art Adventures
Ace Willie (William Litzler) will perform interactive magic routines for children, plus some of Houdini's favorite magic tricks. He will be using some vintage magic props as part of the program. Following the magic program, kids Participants in this Kids’ Art Adventure will discuss Joe Coleman’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Harry Houdini) and then create their own vivid portrait telling their story or the story of someone they admire. Portraits will be completed with a tooled metal frame. Six- to ten-year-olds should meet promptly at 1 pm in MMoCA’s lobby; children must be accompanied by an adult. Space at Kids’ Art Adventures is limited to thirty children and available on a first-come, first-served basis. more »

Friday, May 4 ∙ 6:30–7:30 pm
Magic and Metamorphosis: An Evening of Poetry
During this special evening of poetry, members of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets will read original works that delve into themes expressed in Houdini: Art and Magic. The evening will include a performance by Karl Elder of his major work The Houdini Monologues.

Sunday, May 6 ∙ 1–2:30 pm
Kids’ Art Adventures
Make paper sculptures inspired by birds—living and illustrated—in Houdini: Art and Magic. Before exploring the exhibition, kids will meet and learn about the guest homing pigeons that live on the Madison Children’s Museum’s Rooftop Ramble. If weather permits, participants will watch these beautiful birds fly back to the Children’s Museum. Pre-registration is required for this workshop; register by emailing sheri@mmoca.org. Registration deadline is April 26. (For six- to ten-year-olds and their families.) more »