Take Two #66: Juan Tamariz
I am, by nature, opposed to absolutes, to hyperbole, to those who strive to fill grey areas with black or white.
Ask me to name the best rock guitarist, and I’ll typically ask you to name the greatest baseball player—and then point out that the task is impossible, because baseball involves hitting, running, throwing, catching. If you just want to talk about one of those skills, the task is a tad more reasonable. But then, who’s the greatest hitter? Well, for power, or for average?
Similarly, when it comes to greatest rock guitarists, it’s equally unreasonable to select a single name from the midst of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman… just to name a few. That’s why Rolling Stone’s “Hundred Greatest Guitarists” is a far more reasonable consideration—leaving us to argue about the order rather than the inclusions and exclusions. (And sure, the greatest rock guitarist was Jimi Hendrix, but that’s beside the point.)
I’m a little more inclined to engage in the “best of” conversation when it comes to food, at least if the terms of the debate are narrowed in subject and geography. Best Neapolitan pizza in San Diego? Okay, it’s Buono Forchetta. But really, best New York style pizza in New York City? Come on—at least let’s do the Top Five. (Unless you want to say Totonno’s in Coney Island.)
Okay, I’m not certain if I’ve made my point or further undermined it. But when it comes to art—and life—nuance is a necessity to reasoning, and without it, we’re left with extremes that have less to do with judgment and more to do with dogma.
Where was I? Ah, yes—talking about “the best.”
People can’t help it. Arts and crafts, and mixes of the two, that really shouldn’t have anything to do with formal competitions that now fill television hours, presenting views of everything from cooking to singing that are so distorted and far from the real world that they might as well be science fiction—except for the presence of the oxymoron of the age, “reality television.” But because pop culture (not real culture) trains us to think this way, people can’t help themselves.
After folks ask we magicians how we got started, how we learned what we do, how much do we practice, how long does it take, is it a gift, do we get fooled by other magicians, and what do we do for a living … somewhere within that inevitable Top Ten, we will be asked: Who’s the best magician?
My initial response—after pausing to offer my baseball analogy—is to point out that the the person posing the question probably can’t name more than five living magicians. And since three is an even more likely number, that means that, of the dozens of truly great magicians in the world, they’ve likely heard of somewhere between zero and two of them. I might further explain that this is because magic doesn’t translate well to television or other recorded media, and most of the world’s great magicians primarily perform in live venues, and at that, often extremely small venues—like a restaurant, or in cocktail parties. So, most people are never going to get to see these performers.
And then, if they’re still with me after all that, I’ll typically name a handful of truly great magicians that they’ve likely never heard of. (Most of which have likely been profiled in Take Two!)
“But okay, okay—if I chained you to a computer and forced you to read the Magic Cafe for an entire day unless you answer—who’s the one you would name?”
Okay, then … it’s probably Juan Tamariz.
I’m certainly not the first to make that claim. And while it would not have been a common claim in these United States twenty years ago, in recent years it has become far more common for magicians to name this magical Spaniard as their choice for the world’s greatest living magician.
Recently, the author of a forthcoming historical book about magic, but one who comes from outside the magic world, asked me to summarize what makes Tamariz so great. I declined to oblige him because, to begin with, Tamariz is an eccentric and unusual performer. There will invariably be some in the audience—magicians as well as non-magicians—who won’t “get it,” at least upon initial exposure. Like all great artists, Tamariz is educating his audience as he entertains them. He is expanding their view of what magic can be; of what a great magician can be.
I would be quick to qualify the claim of his standing with an important caveat: the reason we can and should at least discuss the possibility that Tamariz is our current “greatest” is not simply because of his abilities and accomplishments as a performer—substantial as they may be—but rather, because of the far-reaching impact of his influence.
There are some magicians who would compare Tamariz to Dai Vernon. Without question, Vernon was the most influential conjuring artist of the twentieth century. His impact was profound, both deep and broad, and lasting. It’s been said that Vernon has been an influence on every magician in the world, whether they know it or not. And there’s a lot of truth in that—and not as much hyperbole as one might suspect. The current trend among a tiny minority of historical revisionists reveals nothing beyond identifying their own ignorance and egos.
Tamariz’s influence is, frankly, nowhere near as broad. And that’s perfectly fine, because it’s unreasonable to think that we will ever see another Vernon in our lifetimes. Vernon was sui generis, like all true geniuses. His impact and accomplishments are not replicable—extending as they did to the creation of classic routines, sleights and techniques; the creation and refinement of simplified and improved replacements for ancient and difficult sleights; and the repeated synthesis ground-breaking methods and effects, such as in the arena of the “thought of card” plot and more.
But after Vernon, while we can identify many important and brilliant magical thinkers, creators, and performers of the latter half of the twentieth century—the name of Tommy Wonder comes immediately to mind—there, really, is no one who is comparable to Vernon once we consider influence. The one name that comes anywhere close is that of Tamariz.
Tamariz has unarguably had a profound influence on more than one generation of magicians specializing in card magic, primarily close-up card magic, not only in his native Spain, but, in fact, around the world. His writings, lectures, performances, and theories comprise a lingua franca among sleight-of-hand cardicians the world over today. And it is, I would maintain, the extent of this impact and influence that contributes significantly to my willingness—albeit chained down and forced to read the Green Monster—to name him among the world’s greatest, and possibly, currently, the greatest of all.
And thus, it becomes ludicrously daunting and near impossible to write this Take Two with any confidence, because no matter what video performances I present for your consideration, there is no way that a single viewing of a handful of performance pieces will convince you, or begin to convey to you (especially to non-magicians), why such a claim would be true.
But I have no choice but to try. After sixty-five of these performance-based essays, it’s time I wrote about a magician who has profoundly influenced me, and an artist who I genuinely consider to be a creative genius.
I first met Juan Tamariz around 1988 at the Fechter’s Finger Flinging Frolic (4F) convention in Buffalo. I had come across a bit of his work in the previous decade, notably when he and his own legendary mentor, Arturo de Ascanio, came to Las Vegas to perform and lecture at a convention. I obtained a copy of a small spiral bound booklet by Tamariz, the original edition of his Five Points in Magic. But I really had little idea of who he was, or his public standing in Spain.
Tamariz was a successful television director in his native Spain, who in his midlife became a professional magician, and using his experience and contacts in television, became a television superstar of magic. He didn’t just make televised magic specials, the way Doug Henning and David Copperfield did in the U.S. Rather, not unlike Paul Daniels in the UK, Tamariz would star in multiple television series, and become a national treasure. (You can see two of his series, Chan-Tatachán and Luna de Verano, in Magicana’s The Screening Room.)
At that same 4F convention at which we first met, I recall standing with the performer, Daryl, out on the veranda of the Forks Hotel, where he told me the following story. Daryl had been on a European lecture tour, and arrived in Madrid, where Tamariz had graciously come to meet him at the airport. In the days when you could meet a deplaning passenger right at the arrivals gate, Tamariz personally greeted Daryl and suggested that, after his long flight, they sit down and have a beverage at the airport before proceeding further.
As they sat in a relaxed conversation, people began to approaching Tamariz, asking for his autograph. It was frequent enough that at one point, Daryl wondered to himself if the whole thing was a setup—a prank staged entirely for his benefit.
But then, Daryl began to notice something else. He noticed that there were people at a distance who were choosing not to interrupt and ask for autographs, or to exchange a few words in a personal encounter. Rather, these individuals were clearly recognizing a celebrity, pointing out his presence to their companions, whispering a few words about the wonder of that sighting, and then politely moving on.
When Daryl noticed that—the subtle pointing, the conversational gesturing—then, for the first time, he realized the enormous standing of Juan Tamariz in Spain.
Back at the 4F convention, I first saw Tamariz perform for about ninety minutes. It may not be an overstatement to suggest that I was forever changed. Not that I “got it” all at first viewing. I only got some of it. But the door was opened, the path stepped out onto. And I’ve been traveling that path, fascinated and rapt, ever since.
Earlier this year in January, I flew to Columbus, Ohio to attend the MagiFest convention. There were a number of good reasons to attend, including that it’s an excellent, well-produced and well-programmed conference, and that there are always plenty of great friends from around the country and, to some extent, the world to see. But the first and foremost reason I attended was because Tamariz was making a rare U.S. visit. It had been a few years since we last spent time together, and I was not about to miss this opportunity.
I was thoroughly rewarded. Tamariz performed a solo stage show, a lecture, and then on the day after the convention concluded, he conducted a three-and-a-half-hour workshop—all of which I attended. He also made one of his legendary impromptu appearances, performing at a “session” table in the lobby, where he arrived at precisely midnight on Saturday night, a few hours after the final night’s gala show. He sat down at a table (as good fortune would have it, right next to me), and performed forty-five minutes of astonishing, mystifying, entertaining, and utterly beautiful close-up magic. (He typically does about twice that amount of time at these happenings, but he had to get up early the next morning for the workshop.) Later on Sunday, I joined him with a few other convention performers and producers for dinner. And much later still, I sat with him and three others, at a solitary lobby table, doing and talking magic into the late, late hours of the night, his natural habitat.
It was a fabulous trip, and like every other such time I’ve spent with him, it left me with the longing desire to pack up my suitcase and follow him home to Spain for more, much more, of the same.
How do I explain what the maestro brings to the table? It is performance. It is technique. It is theory. It is effects of true mystery and methods of true elegance. It is all these things, and yet much more. It is a literally his unique presence—a presence and personality brimming with joy, and glimmering with mystery. It is all of this, and more, and the intangible, the ephemeral. It is … Tamariz.
It is perhaps, most important of all, his uncompromising commitment to, and vision of, the nature of mystery, and the creation of the experience of mystery for his audiences. This is what magic means to Tamariz. This is what magic can be—and in his hands, simply, is.
Tamariz has recorded hours upon hours of television performances exemplifying these things. He has written volumes and recorded hours of teachings, explaining and instructing magicians in his ideas. (I intend to review his most recent magnum opus, The Magic Rainbow, very soon here in the Lyons Den.) Yet it is very difficult to learn these things in any direct sense from watching his performances. They are certainly inspiring—of this there can be neither doubt, nor argument. But Tamariz is literally inimitable (even though he has countless imitators), and the path to achieving his particular goals, guided by his particular thinking, must be navigated in each individual’s original way, lest they otherwise become a weak imitator rather than a strong student. One must deconstruct his work, his methods, his thinking, to the point that his personality is set aside; only then can one move forward, tools in hand, building towards one’s own interpretations and approach to Tamariz’s lesson. All this is far more easily said than done.
The point is, a handful of performances cannot reveal all of this depth. Be advised that he speaks no word, makes no gesture, that has not been thought out, analyzed, deconstructed, reconstructed, understood, mapped. But it doesn’t show in any obvious way. What is obvious is only the clarity of beautiful magic, and a joyous, unmatchable personality.
I am tempted to continue adding here—to keep attempting to explain the phenomenon of this great performer, to try to unpack the whys and hows. But I have already probably written too much, particularly for the non-magicians, and I will constrain such efforts to future writings for my fellow students and artists. For now, I ask—I beg!—that you ready yourself for wonder, that you clear your mind and open your heart to what lies ahead. Please: set aside the smart phone for a while. Expand the browser to the maximum. Turn up the sound. And allow me to introduce you to the magic of Juan Tamariz.
There is some silliness at the beginning of this spot that establishes Tamariz’s playfulness, before he gets to the real mystery.
I love this piece, and it requires no further annotation.
If you have taken your time to really sit and focus and absorb the previous performances, you might want to take a breath before pressing onward. But like the previous two routines, this is yet another signature piece of the maestro. The additional performances I’ve posted below are entirely optional, and for those so inclined, you might want to wait and consider what you’ve read and seen here before watching more.
These next two routines are classic card plots that are remade here by Tamariz’s hands.
At Magic-Con in 2010
This one is mostly for magicians since this is simply handheld cell phone video that tallies more than twenty-five minutes in two parts—here is a typical example of one of the maestro’s legendary impromptu shows. I have been fortunate enough to see many of them over the years, and they are thrilling, as you can tell by the response of the magicians gathered in this audience, in which many prominent artists can be sighted, including John Carney, Jason England, Peter Samelson, and more.
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