Penn Doctoral Candidate Uncovers Critical Role of Cinema in the Work of Artist Marcel Duchamp

For seven years, Alexander Kauffman, a doctoral candidate in the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania, has been researching the influential 20th-century French artist Marcel Duchamp, making new discoveries about the impact of cinema on his work.

The resulting dissertation, “‘Faire un Cinéma’: Marcel Duchamp and the Moving Image,” was found to be so compelling by the editor of The Art Bulletin, a peer-reviewed quarterly regarded as one of the most influential in the art history world, that they published an adaptation as an article in the spring issue.

“Alex was able to give that major artist a new life by associating Duchamp with the modern technology of his time, and ours: filmmaking, and by interpreting his major works through that new perspective,” says Nina Kallmyer, The Art Bulletin editor-in-chief, who is also a visiting scholar at Penn, and a professor emeritus from the University of Delaware.

“I think his article has implications beyond that thesis,” she says, “those implications being that from now on we will be able to look at Duchamp, and a wide circle of artists through the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s through that cinematic optic, or cinematic imaginary, the term that Alex is using.”

​​​​​​​Kauffman contends that Duchamp was more interested and invested in filmmaking than previously documented and was directly involved in more than the one early film he is known for, “Anemic Cinema,” made in 1926. Of particular importance is a feature-length film he contributed to 20 years later. As a result, Kauffman finds that the effects of cinema can be seen in Duchamp’s artworks throughout his lifetime.

Calling the dissertation “a remarkably original interpretation” of the cinematic in the work of Duchamp, Penn’s Christine Poggi, a professor of the history of art in the School of Arts & Sciences, says Kauffman’s research demonstrates how the artist experimented with various unusual approaches and puts them in an evolving historical context.

The “cinematic," she says, is a term that in the early 20th century “included the science and representation of movement (kinematics), unusual screening devices such as mirrored glass, various optical devices such as spinning glass plates and abstract spirals, and in a few instances, actual film.”

Kauffman offers an “entirely new interpretations” of Duchamp’s late works, she says, including “Étant Donnés,” a piece in the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which involves looking through peep holes onto a forbidden scene.

“These works, as well as many previously obscure notes and catalogue entries, suddenly acquire a meaningful context via Alex’s new interpretation,” says Poggi, who was Kauffman’s professor, as well as his adviser.

​​​​​​​Kauffman’s lifelong passions of cinema, art, history and Philadelphia came together in his work on Duchamp for the dissertation.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art consists of nearly 200 objects, including “Étant Donnés,” “The Large Glass,” which Kauffman says “challenges the idea of what a nude should look like,” and “Fountain,” a urinal created 100 years ago this year. The collection also includes the iconic painting “Nude Descending Staircase,” which he says is deliberately cinematic in the way it represents movement and narrative. 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Duchamp “was operating outside of what many consider to be art, at that time and even today, challenging what art can be and what art is,” says Kauffman.

He knows the PMA’s Duchamp collection intimately, including many of the pieces in the Museum archives. Growing up in Swarthmore, he was first introduced to the artist during his childhood. These early visits to the Museum later led to him to become a teen docent, helping to teach children’s classes.

Kauffman then returned, both as an intern and a graduate fellow at the Museum while pursuing his doctorate in art history and cinema studies at Penn, after earning his undergraduate degree in art history at New York University.​​​​​​​

Why the interest in Duchamp?

​​​​​​​“I think,” says Kauffman, “he is asking some of the big questions that we should be asking in art history, like, What is a work of art? What is the value of calling something art? How does this change its role in our lives?

“Duchamp seems very relevant to the contemporary moment,” he says, “even though most of his work now is nearly 100 years old, not only because he is asking the big questions but also because his work became very influential for later generations of artists.”

Kauffman curated a film and speaker series for the major 2012-13 exhibit at the PMA, “Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp.” A graduate fellowship the following year, funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, allowed him to continue his research on Duchamp.

“His work with Duchamp is very deep and sincere,” says Carlos Basualdo, the PMA’s senior curator of contemporary art. “Alex has proven there is still a lot to say about Duchamp. Times change and our approach to Duchamp changes. That is why it is so vital to have younger people interested in the artist.”

Another mentor for Kauffman at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was Michael Taylor, curator of the 2009 exhibition “Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés.” Taylor, now the deputy director and chief curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, was on the committee that reviewed Kauffman’s dissertation, along with Poggi and Karen Redrobe, the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor in Film Studies and chair of the History of Art Department at Penn.

“It will become one of the key texts on Duchamp,” Taylor says about the dissertation. “Alex showed Duchamp had an engagement in film and cinema that was long lasting, from an early age until the end of his life. It had profound ramification for his work, and Alex really teases that out in his dissertation.”​​​​​​​

Kauffman found a range of newly available and previously unpublished archival materials during his research. He worked in several archives in the United States, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, as well as in Europe, specifically France and Germany.

Critical was his discovery of Duchamp’s involvement in a film in 1945-47, “Dreams that Money Can Buy,” made 20 years after “Anemic Cinema,” that had not previously been given import. Duchamp created a short, “Discs,” that served as a dream sequence in the feature-length film.

“This film becomes really important,” Kauffman says. “By documenting a second film, I deconstructed the narrative that Duchamp had created only one film, in 1926, and that he didn’t care about film or cinema.”

Kauffman, who will graduate in August with a Ph.D. in the history of art and a graduate certificate in cinema and media studies will remain at Penn this fall as a lecturer, scheduled to teach undergraduate modern art classes focusing on 1900 to 1945. As a specialist in modern art, media, including film and photography, and museum exhibitions and exhibition history, Kauffman plans to lead a spring undergraduate seminar focusing on Duchamp’s experimentation with non-traditional art media, including film.

Of his work with Duchamp, Kallmyer points to Kauffman’s fresh perspective, characterizing his work as, “both innovative with a traditional view of a famous artist like Duchamp, but at the same time bold and daring with new perspectives.”

Says Taylor, “Alex is emblematic of a new generation of art historians who are asking new questions.”



Kauffman, Alex