Modern Art by Jim Steinmeyer
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1996)
Here's something you don't see every day: a book of illusions. Here's something you
don't see every decade: a good book of illusions.
Jim Steinmeyer should need little if any introduction to even the mentalists among my
readership. Illusion designer and consultant for performers including Doug Henning,
David Copperfield and Lance Burton, inventor of Origami and Interlude, two of the
most popular illusions of recent years, when Mr. Steinmeyer offers something in the way
of illusions, we might want to take notice. And, as it turns out, this is a book worth
The title illusion, "Modern Art," is an upright cutting; that is, a horizontal bisection of a
standing assistant, in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of Robert Harbin's seminal Zig-Zag
Girl (hey, that was the title, deal with it). The victim enters the box, the doors are
closed, and his or her actual face, right hand, and the toes of both bare feet remain
visible. A sword, about two feet long, is inserted through the box from front to back, the
blade extending at the rear and the handle in front, at the level of the victim's waistline.
Despite this barrier, the top half of the box is now slid to the side, remaining parallel
with but now clearly removed from the victim's legs. As a kicker, doors in both the upper
and lower portions of the box halves are opened, revealing the victim's torso in the
upper half, and legs in the lower half. The doors are closed, the box restored, and the
victim emerges from the box unscathed. The box is small and apparently very restrictive,
there is no black art, wedge base, or mirrors, and the trick can be performed in virtually
any lighting or audience conditions, even in the round.
Some will speculate as to whether or not this is a "better" trick than the Zig-Zag, one of
the greatest illusions of this century. But it is also one of the most abused, ubiquitous,
and poorly performed, so here is something different that can fulfill some of the similar
but unusually broad and practical conditional features of the great Harbin trick. If
you've seen the ads, you can tell this is a good trick; the punchline of seeing the legs
seems very strong to me.
"For many years I've realized that the best way to create a routine is to
perform it for an extended period before an audience, then stop, scrap the
entire thing, and create a new routine derived from the experience of these
performances:"—Jim Steinmeyer, Modern Art
The second trick, "Hospitality," is a practical, mechanical apparatus approach to the
"any drink called for" effect or, as more accurately described by the author, "many drinks
from a simple container." This can be used for alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks,
and the routine provided utilizes the latter along with a child assistant, selected from the
audience, on stage for the duration of the performance—a worthy presentational feature.
The prop, in the form of a serving cart, is entirely self-contained.
The third item is entitled "Shadow Theatre." A cabinet is introduced, barely large
enough to contain a person. The cabinet lacks a back of any sort (that is, on the upstage
side), and the hinged front door is actually a framed grid made up of paper screening. A
light bulb is suspended behind the cabinet to shine a light forward and create shadows
on the front screen. The magician steps behind the cabinet and, reaching inside, unfolds
a piece of paper into the shape of a large vase; the audience views this unfolding process
in silhouette, via the shadow cast on the frontispiece. The magician comes around the
front, opens the cabinet, and a large vase has appeared, which is then removed. An
assistant now climbs into the cabinet and reclines therein. The frontispiece is closed,
and the light switched on. The magician again steps around the back and apparently
folds the assistant's silhouette, as if it were a two-dimensional object, down into a
progressively smaller construction; in essence, the reverse of the unfolding of the cut-
out silhouette of the previously produced vase. Stepping around to the front, the
magician opens the screen door and removes a small square packet of paper, the same
color as the assistant's costume, who has otherwise completely vanished.
What I particularly like about this illusion is the fact that it is not only a vanish, but a
vanish with plot. The author comments that, "Many magicians are hesitant to include a
disappearance in their programs because of the 'unrequited' feeling it creates in the
audience. However, this illusion makes the vanish the last step in a gradual routine....
the effect is surprising and slightly surreal, but hardly unresolved." I would love to see
Throughout the book, the methods are unquestionably deceptive, carefully considered,
and thoroughly conceived. These are not pipe dreams. This isn't yet another
compendium of recycled excuses for a wedge base. The plans are detailed, and in the
case of the title effect, a number of excellent photos of the prop are included. And I
suspect that the asking price will serve the purchaser doubly well, by delivering up plans
to a completely professional standard and by waving the dabblers, dilettantes, and
armchair illusionists aside.
Mr. Steinmeyer opined in his 1991 book, Device and Illusion, that there are "only four
great books ever published on illusions: Hopkins' Magic, Jarrett's Magic and
Stagecraft, Devant's Secrets of My Magic, [and] Magic of Robert Harbin." I am
strongly inclined to agree, and while perhaps not quite as rich a lode as these
monumental works, the serious illusionist certainly wouldn't be doing badly to add
copies of Mr. Steinmeyer's various works to his or her course of study. Read carefully
between the lines—in the cracks where the real secrets of creative illusion ideas lurk, in
spaces darker and tighter than even the hiding place of the proposed assistants—and
even this spare manuscript stands to reveal far more than merely the construction plans
of a few good tricks. As well, while the book is spiral bound, it is produced with high
quality materials and beautifully designed. (Before publishers rush out their next desktop wonder, they would do well to consider what real taste and design skills can
produce, as exemplified by this work, along with Mr. Steinmeyer's wonderful The Magic
of Alan Wakeling) In an industry where the retail and publishing business is dominated
by products designed for and consumed by amateurs, and typically unsuited to
professional use, it is a refreshing pleasure to come across a product designed by a
professional for other professionals, and that delivers on its promises.