Magic and Loss



Houdini: Art and Magic
The Jewish Museum, NYC
Through March 27, 2011

My father, talented engineer, and aficionado of Blackstone and Houdini, and my longtime friend Julie Sloane, artist and creator who could see the magic in ordinary things were both shuffled off this mortal coil this year. I miss that they were not here to see this poignant Jewish Museum exhibition, Houdini: Art and Magic, as they would have had such diametrically opposed responses.Dad never had much truck with museums, and Jewel would have found elevating the Jewish, immigrant, carny to museum status, well…in her words, "just goofy." Their thoughts are with me as I try to navigate a response worthy of their opinions. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said that art and death were incompatible; the very creation of art was an act in defiance of death. As interesting a place as any to begin contemplating the work of Houdini, whose very career revolved around tantalizing an audience with the promise of his own demise, again and again.

Certainly in this day in age, we can see how resurrecting the master Illusionist to the status of a museum show makes sense. Chriss Angel and David Blaine must be panting in the wings. The cast of supporting artists too, well vetted, reads like a fan anthology for the darker arts. Capable pieces by two of my long-time favorite painters Deborah Opropello and Jane Hammond are included with competent works which utilize the necromancers signs. Petah Coyne's funerary arrays, haunting, beautiful and sad strike the perfect note of loss and nostalgia, evoke the dripping candles on many tables at which the famed magician sat around, trying to invoke the shade of his dead mother. Here is where the biography of the great man (Harry Houdini/Erich Weiss/Ehrich Weisz) seeps in, infiltrating our understanding of both Art and Magic, and communicating the enormous message of the show.

Of the artists selected to represent "Art" only one, Matthew Barney seems to understand "Magic" as well. In "Cremaster 2," (Barney's series loosely based on Norman Mailer's accidental masterpiece The Executioner's Song) Gary Gilmore is the stand-in for the Water Torture Trick, that final gimmick that will give catharsis to our willing suspension of disbelief, allowing us the vicarious thrill of hoping the magician/artist/deathrow inmate will ultimately reincarnate. Here is the Kansas Shuffe of Great Art. Picasso said once, "Art is a Lie that reveals the Truth." The mostly silent film "Cremaster 2" has two lines, profound, not just for their scarcity. When killing the gas station attendant, shooting him in the back like a sacrificial animal, Gilmore speaks. "This is for me. And this is for Nicole." In other words, the message/sacrifice is a letter to his loved one, redeemable not on this mortal plane, but the next.

Houdini's mother was his beloved (he purchased for her a dress made for Queen Victoria, and presented her to Society in it). He made a career following her death debunking fraudulent spiritualists who preyed on those seeking audience with the departed. His art, from The Chinese Water Torture Chamber, through simpler and simpler gimmicks to slip, specially made handcuffs and boxes, was a long love letter to her. Proof that the Jewish refugee boy who got by with card tricks had in fact learned something deeper. He was discovering another realm; he just wanted confirmation. Demonstrate the Positive by debunking the Negative. He had, by this time become an American, after all. Proof, scientific proof, would validate his theories.

Here is the marriage of magic and art. What can be the use of belief without doubt? What is art but the shared belief in an aesthetic? A communion of souls. These questions don't have any simple, polished answer. None of the good ones ever do. Houdini dominates the work in the exhibition, if only he lays aside the cloak of mystery, just enough, explaining his every trick and gimmick, only to conceal the real ones which we will never see. The beauty of Houdini's work is in the depths of which he was willing to plunge to discover Truth. His pograms on fake spiritualists only underscored the depth that he felt about his own beliefs. Inconceivable, perhaps, from our vantage point. Art just might be the tool to reveal the Truth. A complicated set of ideas set forth in a good show. Jewel, Dad, see you on the other side. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.