In a memorable scene from the biopic Houdini, released in 1953, the illusionist’s wife bemoans a performance at which the audience pelted her husband with tomatoes: "Nobody seems to want your magic, Harry." It’s a gut punch to the young magician: an unwanted magician is one in need of a career change. As truth-bending as the film infamously was, Bess’s lament feels plausible. Illusionist magic is gimmickry. Escaping while handcuffed from a locked box dropped into the bay, on the other hand–that requires dexterity and stamina, total physical control. Houdini’s real trick was to unlock the organic magic of the human body, and doing so over and over made him an icon. But nobody seemed to realize that Houdini’s hands were tied in more ways than one. The bawdy throngs who paid pennies to witness his death-defying acts demanded increasingly riskier antics. Houdini obliged, and by the time of his "buried alive" stunts, his lust to delight had boxed him into a corner; he had rendered his past work obsolete.

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the disappearance from the art world of the artist Cady Noland. While Houdini pushed himself until the very end–dying of peritonitis a week after his final performance in Detroit, in 1926–Noland simply walked away from her craft without explanation, an artist still very much "in demand." Everyone had wanted her magic. Noland was born in 1956 and grew up in New York City, the daughter of the highly regarded "Color Field" abstract painter Kenneth Noland. She likely began showing her work in the ’80s; the earliest piece I’m aware of is a no-longer-extant Rauschenbergian combine from 1984 with the chilly title Total Institution. Objects like a telephone receiver, clips, a toilet seat and a rubber chicken hang from a wall-mounted horizontal rack. During her brief career Noland’s gaze would remain fixated on institutional control and the American public spectacle of cruelty, and her aesthetic would grow increasingly embittered, clinical and mean.

Counting her debut solo show in 1988 at the nonprofit gallery White Columns in New York City, Noland had at least six solo shows over the next two years, a glut even by the standards of today’s über-productive artists. During an era when art got "loose" ("scatter art" became acceptable lingo for describing installation art of the late ’80s and early ’90s), Noland’s tightened up. Her installations were typically amalgamations of hardware found in stores and on the city’s sidewalks–not sculptures in the traditional sense but exercises in arrangement. She had an affinity for gleaming aluminum, chrome and other metals–some seemingly detached from machines and appliances–as well as the seedy Americana of the lower classes. Both were stand-ins for a national culture that was slipping and had been stripped of its vigor.

Despite a doggedly clinical aesthetic, Noland liked junk–spills, ooze, trash tossed from moving vehicles, wrecked cars and incomplete roadside construction. "It’s an American trip to take huge joy in wasting things," she said in 1994. James Dean’s death was interesting not only because he was James Dean but because it "highlights the trashing of appealing supplies," namely metal. "The joy in joyriding is the joy of damaging major metal." The title of her 1994 interview with Mark Kremer and Camiel van Winkel is "Metal Is a Major Thing, and a Major Thing to Waste," a direct quote of hers.

Metal was the foundation of her installations and the surface onto which she had been transferring images at least since 1989. When she produced silkscreens of murdered or scorned media celebrities (Abraham Lincoln, Betty Ford, Lee Harvey Oswald), she transferred the images from mass media sources onto aluminum or other metals and leaned the thing right against the wall; as she once said in an interview, she was interested in how consumer society reduces people to objects. Pieces like Booth–The Big Plunge and I Brushed My Teeth This Morning casually used images of incidental artifacts–the set of clothes worn by John Wilkes Booth on the day he murdered Lincoln or a page from a history book about the incident–and blew them up (hyperexposed them) on metal sheets. Sometimes she would print on unusually shiny metal so that a viewer’s reflection in these metallic rectangles would be comically distorted, as in a fun-house mirror. Once–again at White Columns–Noland suspended a metal pole in the door frame, blocking the entryway. A miniature American flag hung limply from the pole, a bluntly abject manifestation of patriotism. Along those lines, she also began building stockades. If the Pop generation preceding her used national symbols as question marks (or dollar signs), Noland used them as ironic exclamation points.

Her multiplatform project Towards a Metalanguage of Evil is–given the absence of any substantive literature about her work–the best primary account of her philosophy. It was conceived as a slide lecture and delivered at a 1987 academic conference called "The Expression of Evil," sponsored by West Georgia College; Noland later transformed it into an illustrated essay published in Spanish and English in the fourth volume of an obscure magazine called Balcon. In imperious and poetic prose she relates her research on psychopathology, specifically its troubling normalization in the "successful" American male, whom she likens to serial killers in their Social Darwinian aggression. The illustrations are a mix of contemporary art (Wallace & Donahue, Sherrie Levine, Peter Nagy, Steven Parrino and Barbara Kruger) that allegorizes the psychopathic "game" and chilling stock images of transportation disasters–prurient thrills, à la J.G. Ballard’s Crash. "There is a meta-game available for use in the United States," the essay begins, before untangling the "hypno-whirlpool" of a type of pathological selfishness. Noland’s psychopath cunningly embarks on an "information hunt," closing in on a "mark" with exploitable needs by falsely assuming the guise of a social role he knows the mark will find alluring: "The psychopath is always wearing a mask except when openly aggressing." She notes that the denouement is most spectacular when it affects a group that assumes itself impervious to such terrorism–politicians, celebrities–and this is where Towards a Metalanguage of Evil begins to take shape as an eerie metaphor for her career, especially her decision to end it.

Was Noland paranoid or just realistic? Her definition of the pathological mirrors free-market, kill-or-be-killed American values; for her, symptoms of the pathology of the American psyche are revelry in waste (both stuff and behavior) and the reduction of death and misfortune to consumable forms of entertainment. Noland wasn’t exactly antibourgeois like, say, the Surrealists. There was nothing educational about her practice; she was more of a nihilist. Career-related celebrity was clearly going to be a problem for an artist like her. Her framing of "success" as founded on manipulation and exploitation would seem to clash with her own taste of it. After Noland’s early spate of solo shows, her name was "out there"–she was "hot."

She was selected for the 1991 Whitney Biennial and in 1992 participated in Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany, a mega-exhibition of international contemporary art that takes place every five years. She three-dimensionalized Towards a Metalanguage of Evil for Documenta; securing an underground garage for her location, she silkscreened the essay onto panels that lay around in slapdash fashion, and included work by some of the artists she had reproduced in the essay. She added an addendum to the essay called "The Bonsai Effect," in which she broadened her critique of American waste culture, showing how it ensnares nonwhites (who are "kept busy by ‘impossible projects’") and women (who waste time and money preserving and decorating themselves). After Documenta her output slowed, and the new work she did make seemed mannered. For a 1993 show at the Dallas Museum of Art she borrowed the museum’s wheelchairs and made them available to visitors; doubtlessly she appreciated the wheelchairs’ polished chrome. In 1993 and ’94 she began making silkscreens of brick walls.

Nobody would care much about the story of an artist slipping through the cracks if she were just any artist. Artists disappear all the time–they run out of money or energy, or people stop wanting to pay for their magic. Noland–like Lee Lozano before her–is still mythical twenty years later because she escaped before her art depreciated. If anything it became tougher, more lacerating and hard-core. What was perhaps her final show, at Switzerland’s Migros Museum in 1999, was one of her meanest; she showed large sections of chain-link fencing that demarcated artificially forbidden areas and simultaneously rendered them invisible, the way a construction site’s visual chaos can be such an eyesore that it paradoxically becomes invisible to the urban pedestrian. Was Noland suffocated by her disgust with her country? Or, after being in both the Whitney Biennial and Documenta, two of the most visible recurring shows in the world, did she recognize that she was becoming a brand, someone counted on for a quick thrill before being discarded–in other words, a "mark"?

Houdini also spent his last years trapped and tormented by his success. He wouldn’t allow himself to depreciate, and this left him acting out a pathetic metaphor: he was a spectacle of public entrapment, his every stunt in its essence an escape from a stockade. Lozano’s late work exhibits an obviously declining mental state, largely attributable to her interactions with the art world, closely documented in her late text pieces. When she quit the art world in 1972 she announced it with Dropout Piece. Noland did no such thing. She just left the game before the game could leave her.