Big Friday sale

The Now You See It, Now You Don't! Notebook by Bill Tarr Kaufman

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1999)


I am an admirer of Bill Tarr, whose two Now You See It, Now You Don't! books were a great influence on a generation of magicians, and whose success as a sculptor (including large-scale public works) is worthy of anyone's respect. This book reflects an amateur magician's lifelong passion with his hobby, and as such includes all of the benefits and flaws of the amateur's "for the love of the thing" oftentimes limited perspective. That is to say, this is a book that is often charmingly naive, yet naive all the same, and will be a disappointment to those looking for technically groundbreaking or substantially commercial ideas.

Most of the plots will be familiar to intermediate students, be it material with cards, coins, rings, balls, or mentalism. A great deal of the latter concerns an interesting gimmicked writing implement the author has previously marketed dubbed the "BT," a secret device consisting of a doubled writing stylus that duplicates writing in a second location simultaneously as the mentalist writes in the primary location, first described in Annemann's Practical Mental Effects and originated by James Deacy. Concerning this particular segment, there are a number of clever ideas here that will serve as good noodling fodder, albeit that most suffer from the common problem that often plagues mentalism, namely the incessant writing down of things that don't need to be written down (for any reason other than the method, that is).

In a nutshell, this is in fact a book of material for noodlers, not entirely a bad thing in and of itself. The author provides his own take and adaptations of widely-used material, but those additions and alterations are, for the most part, minor. As is often the case with amateur enthusiasts, there are a fair number of ingenious solutions for non-existent problems; why do a one-deck "You-Do-As-I-Do" effect with a substantial setup when you can accomplish the same with a single key card? Also, the author's naivete shows when he suggests what he believes are fresh ideas that in fact have already been covered by others, be it flesh-colored putty—marketed by Jon LeClair for perhaps a decade—or performing on stage on a stool, as Luis de Matos so exquisitely performs his card manipulation routine, or Mark Kahn presents his billiard ball routine. In the hands of an arrogant youth such mistakes would be appalling; in the clearly sincere pages of this book they are merely embarrassing. This is not to say there aren't clever ideas to be occasionally found here, including the "blu-tak dropper" (albeit an idea that also has precedence in David Roth's "Stonehenge Coin Assembly," uncredited in this volume) and a deck switch credited to Allan Kronzek (that also has much unmentioned precedent, including by a prominent contemporary stage performer, but is nonetheless cleverly thought out).

An illustration of the paintbrush change is executed in a clever graphic style that is worthy of note here. However, this is an oasis in a desert of graphic design ideas; the publisher appears to have tried to make this package of weak material more palatable by calling it a "notebook" and using a hand-written font, but this fails to make the author's primitive illustrations appear any more skilled, nor does it make the material any more effective. Although as a rule I find laminated hardcovers tacky and unpleasant, this one is one of the better efforts in this area from this publishing house, although no doubt the primary intent was to save money on a book that might not sell well.

My greatest dispute with the author concerns much of his theoretical thinking, and I strongly caution the reader not to accept the theoretical and presentational ideas in this book at face value as being worthy of professional use. It is extremely ironic that the author, a professional artist, seems to apply some very odd ideas to his art-as-hobby that one suspects differ greatly from his ideas about art-as-profession. He appears to take his avocation far less seriously than his vocation, even though both are legitimate art forms, deliberately lowered his artistic standards for the former and now foisting those questionable value judgments on the rest of us as guidelines. He proposes that original script material is unnecessary in order to achieve artistic legitimacy in magic; this is invariably the mark of a per-former with limited abilities or energies for creating original presentations, but I suspect—I certainly hope—that the author is more demanding of himself in his sculpting efforts. (Those who compare the use of existing script with musical performance, for example, typically fail to acknowledge that "cover bands" are invariably remanded to the bar-mitzvah and wedding circuit, and are never considered legitimate artistic contenders. Certainly there is a place for such an approach, but one must be dear about the differences. Great interpreters of traditional pop music remain an extremely small segment today, and I doubt that most magi who use existing script care to liken themselves to Tony Bennett; indeed, the analogy between magic and this musical style, or acting for that matter, is extremely weak if not outright unsupportable. The fact is that in rock-n-roll and stand-up comedy alike, it has now been more than forty years—since the time of Buddy Holly and Lenny Bruce—that originality has not been a mere option but in fact an absolute prerequisite for artistic legitimacy.)

These misapprehensions are all too typical of an amateur perspective, yet again somewhat surprising given the author's experience as an artist. Mr. Tarr's fascination with prop and method, as opposed to performance, also earmarks his amateur status. (Lest I be accused of slandering all amateurs, obviously the history of magic is filled with great amateurs and appalling professionals alike. My point here is that there is typically a difference in perspective and that Mr. Tarr's specific vantage reflects more of the potential downsides of the amateur approach than its many possible upsides; the professional's perspective similarly contains elements that may serve as advantages or disadvantages in one case or another.) In one entry he describes a gold-plated Okito Box—spare fuel—and elsewhere he proposes the idea of a performance of sleights and techniques in a concert hall setting-described as "pure, unadulterated sleight of hand—reflecting the amateur's fascination with method that belies an understanding of what truly constitutes performance, which is something much deeper and complex than the admittedly grotesque and superfluous "posturing, the smiling and grimacing" that the author legitimately takes per-formers to task for, while ignoring the fact that method-on-display is no substitute for performance. In fact, what he proposes has indeed already been done on a close up basis, wherein a performer's hands (those of Jean-Pierre Vallarino) were isolated within a miniature proscenium stage, like a puppet show—another example of technique devoid of performance that, true to form, managed to win a prize at FISM, perhaps the ultimate tribute to its lack of real-world validity.

Mr. Tarr offers definitions of commercial art and so-called fine art which appear to serve one's elitist tendencies more than they do meaningful discourse; by fine art I believe he means static art, a term he might have found useful when he discusses the claimed need for timelessness. In fact, when the author insists on the timelessness of art—something he describes as "ultimate, inviolable truth," a use of language which I find devoid of meaning and hence utterly mystifying—he apparently either denies or forgets entirely the important differences between static and performance art. (Perhaps he puts these distinctions on a different hierarchical level as well, which might explain his apparently lower artistic standards for magic.) He then proceeds to demonstrate a fundamental disrespect for technique—bizarrely, despite the fascination with method reflected in his concert hall fantasy—by flatly attributing superb mechanical technique to one's being "freakily well coordinated," a statement that is as insulting as it is preposterously ignorant. Let me assure the author that my execution of the classic pass is based on thousands of hours of hard work, not some freak biological endowment. Certainly we each begin with different nascent tools, but such possessions, commonly referred to as talent, are merely another way of expressing potential, and potential is never realized without tremendous effort and painfully hard work. Go forth and practice.

The Now You See It, Now You Don't! Notebook Bill Tarr Kaufman and Company 8-1/2" x 11" laminated hardcover 250 pages; 331 line drawings, 1998