Erich Weiss emigrated from Budapest to Wisconsin when he was 4 years old. The son of a rabbi, and with seven siblings, his career could have ended up like any of the tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants arriving in America at in the late 19th century. But of course it didn’t, and Weiss would transform himself into one of the greatest showman of all time.
After moving to New York City with his family, Weiss (1874-1926) began performing magic tricks with his brother on Coney Island, in 1893, in an act they called “The Houdini Brothers.” But it was not until the first decade of the 20th century that Houdini’s renown, most especially as an escape artist, really took off.
Eventually he was touring all of Europe, Russia, and the United States; breaking out of shackles in Germany, a Siberian prison in Russia, handcuffs at Scotland Yard.
It is not difficult to read Houdini’s transformation as a parable of Jewish life in America. Once trapped in the Old World, Jews escaped into the New, being remade in America. That is the subtext of The Jewish Museum’s grand fall show, “Houdini: Art and Magic,” which not only explores Houdini’s Jewish past, but the evolution of his reputation over the past hundred years.
Compiling archival material from his own lifetime — from hand-cuffs and shackles, to posters, prints and photographs — with contemporary art made by artists inspired by his craft, the show bridges popular and high culture in one deft swoop. A highly intelligent show, which has become the hallmark of any Jewish Museum exhibit, “Houdini: Art and Magic” will pay particularly close attention to artists like Matthew Barney, Deborah Oropallo, and Petah Coyne, deducing how their own works invoke a similar response to Houdini’s. It is a subtle subversion of high-art pretension, and, one hopes, an equal goad to the anti-intellectualism of the populist.
The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (212) 423-3200. Exhibit runs from Oct. 29 to March 27, 2011.