I WANT TO RETURN NOW to the discussion of the nude that I opened up in my reading of Alex Robbins’s series of paintings “Complements.” I suggested that Robbins’s decision to copy mostly paintings of nudes (the Sargent painting is the only exception) was an engagement with the distinction between the original and the copy that supports the aesthetic exceptionalism structuring the Western art world. In the same way that Robbins inverts the relation between original and copy, his work inverts the relation between nudity and clothing: Robbins’s use of inverse colors makes naked bodies appear as clothed, and clothed bodies—I discussed Mrs. Carl Meyer in Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children in particular—as naked.
While these inversions are obtained in Robbins’s work through painting, I hesitated to characterize his works as such, opting instead for the term “conceptual” as a more exact determination of their status. By presenting us with something like conceptual painting, Robbins arguably deconstructs the distinctions between retinal and non-retinal, painting and readymade, that are the target of Marcel Duchamp’s early twentieth-century work. Projecting the readymade—always already a replica, never original let alone “an” original—back into (mostly) modernist paintings, Robbins presents the viewer with an unexceptional art that subverts, I suggested, not only aesthetic exceptionalism but also the economic and political exceptionalism that it enables.
In this final section, I propose a reading of how the art of another Los Angeles–based painter, Becky Kolsrud, unworks aesthetic exceptionalism through its intervention in the painting of nudity. By unworking the dynamic between nudity and clothing, and foregrounding the materiality of painting itself, Kolsrud unexceptionalizes the status of the naked body in art, and by extension the structuring logic of the contemporary art world (which is built on exceptionalism). If in my reading of Robbins, the distinction between the original and the copy was foreground, and that between nudity and clothing background, here the distinction between nudity and clothing becomes foreground against the background of the criticism of the distinction between the original and the copy that I have already provided. If in my reading of Robbins I tended to come down on the conceptual in my discussion of paintings, here I allow this book’s conceptual framework to move resolutely in the direction of painting, so as to let just painting (in the sense of mere or unexceptional painting) materialize itself.
It should not come as a surprise that the nude ends up playing an important role in any investigation of aesthetic exceptionalism. As François Jullien, the sinologist whose work I relied on in the third chapter, has argued in his book The Impossible Nude, “the nude is a paradigm of what the ‘West’ consists of in cultural terms, and brings to light the stances that originally underpinned our philosophy.” He mentions, immediately following, “the question of essence, of the ‘thing itself,’” in other words: of the nude’s relation to Western ontology and metaphysics. If the nude is interesting to Jullien, it is because it does not allow us to imagine a metaphysical beyond. “Part of the real stops there,” he writes. “After the nude there is nothing more. . . . It is the end, the very point of contact.” As such it “always has the impact of an immutable revelation: the ‘everything is there,’ ‘this is it,’ with no horizon or receding perspective, no beyond. All the rest is merely allusive. . . . There is nothing to be decoded in it, the nude is no longer a sign, the unsurpassable is simply there, before our eyes.” The nude “surg[es] out,” it is “stunning”; Jullien characterizes it as an “event, offered like a miracle for contemplation.” He contrasts it on these counts to nakedness, which always “implies a diminished state.” The nude, on the other hand, “tends toward the Ideal and serves as the ‘image’ (eikon) for the Idea.” In that sense, it “turns toward the ‘divine’”—not at all towards the oblique and the discreet that, under the header of “blandness,” Jullien has praised as key elements of Chinese thought. Hence the philosophical impossibility of the nude in Chinese painting for which Jullien’s book argues. The other side of that conclusion, however, is that the nude is the aesthetic realization of Western exceptionalism, and it is from that point of view that I pay special attention to it here.
Let me begin with what might appear to be a counterintuitive statement: Becky Kolsrud does not paint nudes. In Bather with Red Shoes (2018), for example, the red parts—the shoes, the nailpolish, and the lipstick—stand out too clearly for anyone to comfortably call the painting a nude.
If the bather from the painting’s title is possibly nude underneath the water, it should be noted that the painting pointedly does not tell us whether this is so. Instead, dark blue water, which is supposed to be transparent, veils the bather’s body and turns the painting into something else—not a nude. In fact, the water veils the body to such an extent that one begins to doubt whether there is an actual body present underneath the water. The head, arms, and legs feel dismembered, not quite connected into a larger (underwater) whole. For further proof, just consider Floating Head (2018), which intensifies this feeling: there might not be a body, let alone a naked body, under the water. This might just be a floating head.
This point about nudity is made even more starkly in Resting Bather (2018), where light-blue water confronts the viewer like a block: opaque, material, it appears like something solid onto which the bather—possibly nude, but again there is no way to tell—rests her arms and her head. This water is so hard, the painting seems to say, that you can lean on it. Once again, there is no nudity here. Or if there is, it is not the nudity of the bather. I would propose, instead, that Resting Bather shows us naked painting. What else to call the vertical, rectangular slate of blue that covers most of the painting? It is naked, unexceptional painting, rather than a painting of a nude.
The Three Graces (2018) bathes in the same light-blue of Resting Bather, but this time the blue actually marks a piece of clothing, a kind of hooded cloak for triplets (if such a thing exists). Of course by now, one doesn’t so much see clothing but water, as if The Three Graces are bathing even if they are clothed. Covered when one is supposed to be naked, as in Bather with Red Shoes and Resting Bather, and naked when one is supposed to be covered, as in The Three Graces, Kolsrud’s painting seems to play with nudity and the painting of nudity rather than to deliver it, offering us a kind of naked painting instead.
This is so even in a work that comes closest to being identifiably a nude. Titled Nude in Snow (2018), it shows a naked female body that appears to be bathing in what one imagines to be ice-cold water. The body is naked, and visibly naked in the water, but even here it is partly hidden from view by snow, “in snow,” as the painting’s title puts it. Due to how the snow has been represented—as crude dots of white applied across the painting’s canvas—the viewer once again gets the sense that they are not so much seeing a nude, or even a nude in snow, but a nude in paint or a kind of naked painting. If this painting comes closest to showing an actual nude (even if it is a nude that is partially covered), it is also a painting that through its crudely painted dots of snow shows painting itself, and shows it quite nakedly. It is probably worth noticing that the snow, or the paint, is in the foreground here. The nude in the background may in fact be a distraction. The painting shows, rather, painting itself. Naked. Kolsrud does not paint nudes, then, but she does paint naked painting.
In 2017, just one year prior to the already discussed works, Kolsrud titles one painting Allegory of a Nude II. Not quite a nude, but an allegory of a nude—a work in which, if we follow Walter Benjamin’s understanding of allegory, the nude would lie in ruins and the passage from nudity to its allegory would not quite be accomplished. Light-blue water appears to swirl up like Marilyn Monroe’s dress in that famous photograph, billowing around a female figure’s body like a piece of cloth in the wind (but note the difference between this female figure and Monroe—I will come back to the figure’s expressionless face later on). Supposedly transparent—and a trace of its transparency indeed remains; there is the patch of water covering the figure’s upper right thigh—water already appears opaque and material here as it does in the later paintings, even if it does not yet have the block-like feeling of solidity (as in Resting Bather”). Bather in Red (2017) anticipates Bather with Red Shoes, but here too Kolsrud hasn’t gone quite as far yet in her materialization of painting: some of the bather’s body still shines through, more so in any case than in the work from 2018.
Water covers the body in Clear Boot Diptych as well, its opacity and materiality emphasized not only by the contrast between the light-blue water in the canvas on the left and the dark-blue water in the canvas on the right but also by the fact that the one item of clothing in the painting, the one thing that is supposed to cover up, is transparent or “clear.” One can see through it. The foot thus becomes strangely naked, even if it is covered—perhaps even more so than those naked parts of the body that are visible in the painting (the legs, the arms, the head; again, they feel dismembered, as if the cut in the middle of the painting were the sign of one of those magic tricks in which a woman’s body is cut in half and then miraculously restored to a whole afterward). When the boot returns in Underwater Boot (2017), it is in a painting in which bodies and faces are almost entirely hidden from view by stormy waters. The painting gives the nude, the traditional nude, the boot, so to speak: it puts the naked body under water—and the underwater boot does look like it’s kicking, in the painting—and all it shows is the water, crudely painted, naked, not as water but as paint. Underwater Boot is, in its simplicity, over-painted. It gives nudity the boot in favor of naked painting.
Allegory of a Nude I and Covered Nude make this point in a more complex way, a complexity that—in my view—the more recent work overcomes in favor of a simpler, more unapologetically straightforward painterly statement. Here, female figures are pictured to hold up, as if to show the viewer, what appear to be pieces of cloth—a shawl, perhaps, in Allegory, or a bathing towel (in Covered). But those pieces of cloth are held up like a canvas that in the former work appears to be transparent but is obviously painted, and in the latter work appears to reveal the shapes of the naked body underneath—but the shapes obviously do not match the hidden body. In Allegory—and here again we can follow Benjamin—the passage from one level of reality to the other is not quite established: it’s either the nude body that is painted onto the shawl or the shawl that has been painted onto the naked body. The painting does not quite let us decide. In Covered, it seems quite clear that the towel was painted: light-blue paint can be seen dripping off the towel in the lower, dark-blue part of the painting.
Three Women is the work from 2017 that is the farthest ahead in this series, very close already to works like Bather with Red Shoes or Resting Bather from just a year later (and anticipating as well, obviously, the figure of three that will appear in Three Graces). Lady Underwater is, within this narrative, a transitional work—it paints water as transparent, as not covering the naked body. It stands in between the more traditional nudes from 2017—Nude Ascending, Bathers with Backdrop—which need to be read in opposition to the nonnudes from 2018. I read Double Mountain/Backdrop as a transitional piece as well: removing the traditional nude from the center of attention, the work foregrounds the crudely painted double mountain—and doubled, for those viewers for whom a single mountain wouldn’t have quite gotten the message across—an emphatic brushstroke that is further emphasized by the elaborately painted, wallpaper “backdrop” from the painting’s title. If Kolsrud moves away from the nude here to the foregrounding of painting itself, but at the cost of painting the nude, the contribution of the more recent work is that it manages to combine the two and keep the nude in the center while at the same time offering us naked painting. It is a remarkably fresh, unapologetic embrace of painting and at the same time an intervention (by a woman painter, one might note) in art history’s long and in many ways problematic history of painting female nudes (mostly done by men, one might further note).
In an article titled “Nudity,” which starts with a discussion of a performance by Vanessa Beecroft, Giorgio Agamben criticizes how in Western thought “nudity” has always been marked by a “weighty theological legacy” (65) It is due to this legacy that nudity has always only been what he describes as “the obscure and ungraspable presupposition of clothing,” something that only appears when “clothes . . . are taken off” (65) Nudity, within such a theological optic, is nothing but the “shadow” (65) of clothing. Agamben’s project in his text is to “completely liberate nudity from the patterns of thought that permit us to conceive of it solely in a privative and instantaneous manner,” and therefore the focus of such a project will have to be “to comprehend and neutralize the apparatus that produced this separation” (66) between nudity and clothing. He considers such a project to be realized in Beecroft’s performance, in which “a hundred nude women (though in truth, they were wearing transparent pantyhose [and in some instances also shoes, as he points out later]) stood, immobile and indifferent, exposed to the gaze of the visitors who, after having waited on a long line, entered into a vast space on the museum’s ground floor” (55). There are obviously naked—or sort of naked—bodies here, but Agamben’s perhaps surprising conclusion at first (which I sought to echo earlier on) is that in Beecroft’s performance, nudity did not take place: instead, everything was marked by that theological legacy that renders nudity into a presupposition of clothing.
And yet, Agamben finds in the performance something that might also neutralize this legacy, and more broadly the separation between nudity and clothing, and that is the indifferent and expressionless faces of the women in the performance. He argues, toward the complicated end of his text, that these faces practice a “nihilism of beauty” (88) that shatters this theological machine. It is the beautiful face that marks this machine’s limit and causes it to stop by “exhibiting its nudity with a smile” and saying: “You wanted to see my secret? You wanted to clarify my envelopment? Then look right at it, if you can. Look at this absolute, unforgivable absence of secrets!” (90). Nudity can in this sense quite simply be summed up as: “haecce! there is nothing other than this” (90). Agamben goes on to describe the effect of such a stop as a disenchantment that is both “miserable” and “sublime” due to how it moves “beyond all mystery and all meaning” (90). There is no mystery to dispel, no meaning to uncover, no secret to be revealed. In nudity, all there is, is the beautiful face—and by “beautiful” he is not proposing an aesthetic judgment but marking precisely the indifferent appearance that is being described. It is, in this way, the beautiful face that frees nudity from its theological weight and lets it be, quite simply, naked.
If art history and the ways in which it has shown nudity, after the seventeenth century more often through the veiled, partly unveiled, or fully unveiled bodies of women, is evidently burdened also by the theological weight that Agamben describes, then Kolsrud’s paintings can be read as critically participating in Agamben’s project. It seems clear that Kolsrud is aware of how nudity exists in the shadow of clothing. Indeed, her paintings stage reversals of nudity and clothing in a way that those figures who are naked in her work (I am thinking of the bathers) appear to be fully covered; whereas those figures or elements that are supposed to be clothed—the Three Graces, for example; the foot in the boot—appear to be naked. Such reversals recall the kinds of reversals that Agamben discusses in relation to Beecroft’s work, where he references paintings of the Last Judgment, in which the angels are clothed and those awaiting judgment are naked, in an exact reversal of the situation in Beecroft’s performance where the performing women/angels appear to be naked and the spectators awaiting judgment appear fully clothed, having just walked in from the cold Berlin streets. Even the faces of the figures in Kolsrud’s paintings recall those expressionless faces that Agamben writes about, where a kind of halt to the infinite, theological striptease of denudation is enforced.
But Kolsrud’s brilliant—and yet un-exceptional, in my analysis—contribution as a painter is that she turns painting itself into an ally in this context: indeed, I would argue that the possibility of calling a halt to the theological logic of denudation is at least equally shared between her figures’ expressionless faces (I will leave it in the middle whether they are beautiful or not), and possibly even presented first and foremost by painting itself—by the fact that what her paintings ultimately show us is not a nude but naked painting (something much less exceptional). In this way, Kolsrud ultimately does not need Agamben’s “beautiful faces” (and even less the “choirboy’s ‘white’ voice,” which makes an odd appearance in the closing line of Agamben’s text) to block the theological machine. It is painting, rather—naked, unexceptional painting—that steps in here to, in a kind of miserable but simultaneously sublime way (it retains a trace of the exceptional, after all), declare the absence of all secrets, the void of meaning. There is nothing to denude here, Kolsrud’s paintings seem to say. Painting—naked painting—marks an end to denudation. In this sense, painting, for Kolsrud—naked, unexceptional painting—becomes a kind of weapon against the ways in which human beings, but in particular women, have been violently caught up in the exceptionalist painting of nudity.
And one can trace this argument even further back in Kolsrud’s work. For if Kolsrud, some time in 2017, shifts to painting nudes (thereby situating herself critically in an art history of the nude), I am inclined to read this shift as a logical development from the faces or rather heads she was still painting during that same year. These need to be read, with some of Kolsrud’s even earlier work (from 2016), in relation to the genre of the portrait that, like the nude, makes up a celebrated art historical topos. I write “heads,” and not “faces,” because that is what Kolsrud calls them: they appear like decapitated, slightly disfigured, women’s heads (painted on what looks like a painter’s palette), leaning against each other on a wooden beam mounted against the gallery wall, in one case. In another, different setup they don’t lean but hang, separate from each other, on the gallery wall. One of those latter faces, or rather heads, appears to be doubled (a doubling to which I will come back later on); another has the shape of a face, or rather a head, but is not recognizably a face—it is really just colors. A head.
Kolsrud’s preference for the word “head” rather than “face” recalls, whether intentionally or not, Gilles Deleuze’s writing about Francis Bacon. In his book on Bacon subtitled The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze argues that Bacon, “as a portraitist . . . is a painter of heads, not faces, and there is a great difference between the two.” Whereas the face, and in particular the traditionally beautiful face, refers to a “spatializing material structure,” a “structured, spatial organization” that for example the bones also bring to the body, the head is the culmination of what Deleuze describes as “the body as figure,” and more precisely “the material of the figure.” As such, the face “conceals the head,” and Bacon’s project as a portraitist was precisely to “dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge from beneath the face.” To do so means to open up a “zone of indiscernibility or undecidability between man and animal,” Deleuze suggests, and he ties this particular zone back to the body, but specifically the body “insofar as it is flesh or meat.” Here, he has in mind something that is no longer “supported by the bones,” a state where “the flesh ceases to cover the bones, when the two exist for each other, but each on its own terms: the bone as the material structure of the body, the flesh as the bodily material of the Figure.” Before one reads such materiality in a vulgar way, Deleuze is quick to emphasize in his text that it does not lack “spirit”: the head is in fact “a spirit in bodily form, a corporeal and vital breath, an animal spirit. It is the animal spirit of man: a pig-spirit, a buffalo-spirit, a dog-spirit, a bat-spirit . . .” It is partly for this reason, it seems, that Deleuze can suggest that Bacon is a butcher, but a butcher who “goes to the butcher shop as if it were a church, with the meat as the crucified victim.” “Bacon is a religious painter only in butcher shops,” he writes.
Kolsrud’s heads share something with this Deleuzian reading of Bacon and with Bacon’s project as a portrait painter in that they participate in the painterly brushing out of the clearly identifiable features of the face. But Kolsrud is not quite as universalist as Deleuze, who in his insistence on the head appears to gloss over the fact that Bacon is painting mostly men. Kolsrud, on the other hand, is painting women. She may be painting women’s heads rather than faces, but they are still, in almost all instances, identifiably the heads of women. Perhaps something important is being said here about Deleuze’s head and meat and the limits it poses for art historical analysis, or even the analysis of our lived experiences in the world, in the sense that it does not account for sex or gender, or also race or class. The head and meat are beyond those, for better or for worse.
As a materialist painter, a painter who foregrounds the materiality of painting, Kolsrud also retains something of what Deleuze calls “the spiritual.” Going back to the most recent work from 2018, one should pay attention to scale specifically in terms of how the female bodies are situated in the landscape: it appears as if those bodies are bathing in large bodies of water—lakes rather than swim-holes—and thus the bodies appear unnaturally large compared to the landscapes in which they are situated. This appears to partly cast Kolsrud’s female figures as spiritual or divine, bathing in a large body of water over which they don’t so much rule but with which they become one. If I hesitate to fully associate these figures with “Mother Nature” or “Mother Earth,” it is not only because women have suffered this association for long enough already (and for better and for worse) but also because there are elements—shoes, nailpolish, lipstick—that also prevent such a full identification. The female bodies flow into the landscape and the landscape into the female bodies in the paintings, but Kolsrud’s line nevertheless remains quite distinct, marking a clear limit between the landscape and the female body, and thus at the very least drawing such an association into question.
Still, there is spirituality in Kolsrud’s material paintings, in a way that is similar to how the “spiritual” haunts “the material” in Chinese landscape painting. François Jullien points out in a chapter titled “Spirit” from his book Living Off Landscape that, in Chinese landscape painting, the spiritual is not separate from the material; or, as he puts it, “the aura is not brought to bear or added on (fake); it is one with the thing.” Indeed, Jullien opposes the (Chinese) landscape to the (Western) nude on this count. If Kolsrud’s paintings need to be read within the exceptionalist, Western tradition of the nude, I am also suggesting that they be considered within the “bland,” Far Eastern tradition of landscape painting.
When considering Bacon’s intervention in the history of portrait painting, the politics of it appear to be clear: Bacon’s heads mess with the practice of identification that the portrait participates in, as is evident for example from the portrait’s legacy in the passport photograph. Although a trace of identification remains in Bacon’s heads—they are, for example, all men’s heads, something that Deleuze does not insist on enough—it is clear that Bacon’s heads are trying to go beyond identification, to leave identification behind (this is what Deleuze refers to as becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming-vegetable, and so on). Kolsrud, too, seems to have identification and its political history in mind.
When she paints portraits in 2016, she paints “Double Portraits,” in other words: identifications that, because they are always already split, tend to make identification (which operates according to the logic of the “one”) impossible. A face becomes two, becomes a head, and even a moon (Double Portrait (Moon)). In another double portrait, the eyes are painted over and the focus appears to be on the hands holding what is an image of a face (Double Portrait (Pink Hands)). This last element in the painting anticipates those works from 2017 in which female figures are shown to hold up a shawl or a towel for the viewer. In yet another of her double portraits, one of the portrayed faces is shown to be partially hiding behind its other (Double Portrait (Hiding)). Clearly, all of these works, as portraits, frustrate the process of identification and in that sense are part of the broader realm of what Deleuze has theorized as Bacon’s heads.
That this frustration might be partly political, and intentionally political, is revealed by Kolsrud’s other paintings from 2016, in which eyes, heads, and full bodies are largely blocked from view by what the painter explicitly calls Gates and Security Gates. These “gated” paintings strike me as overpainted, even more so than Underwater Boot, in that their gated representations ultimately show nothing more than paint, than painting itself—and this in spite of the fact that they create the desire to see through the gate. The gates function, in other words, as a kind of clothing: they set up the presupposition of nudity behind or underneath the clothing, but Kolsrud’s painting blocks that search for nudity that (once again) is particularly intense around the bodies of women. The dynamic of denudation stops at the gated painting, at the painting’s gate, which is a kind of security gate not so much in that it would imprison the eyes, heads, or full bodies behind it. The temptation, then, would be to conclude that, instead, the painting allows those eyes, heads, and full bodies to simply be—and that may certainly be part of their point, a point that Agamben makes as well about “the beautiful face.” But I have suggested that Kolsrud’s painting actually goes further and does not so much allow the eyes, heads, and full bodies to simply be—and to simply be naked—but foregrounds painting and ultimately allows painting to simply be. The search for nudity is not so much blocked here by the naked body, but by painting itself. Painting, in its spiritual materiality, brings that search to a halt and forces the viewer to rest with its surface, in the absence of secrets and the void of meaning. In that sense, one can call it naked—but naked only insofar as that nudity is a clothing liberated from anything that is supposed to be hiding underneath.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, finally, that some of Kolsrud’s even earlier work, from 2014, focuses on clothing. It shows faces, or rather heads, as part of clothed bodies, or bodies in the process of being clothed (The Fitting; We Alter and Repair (Shoulders); We Alter and Repair (Back)). It shows security gates, which are now revealed to be the fronts of sewing stores (Storefront, two paintings), where clothes get altered and repaired (We Alter and Repair). Anticipating the later portrait work, there is a Seamstress and a Woman with Sewing Machine, two figures that must, following the larger trajectory that I have laid out, be read not only as such but also in association with the painter herself, who treats canvas and paint as clothing. Thereby, Kolsrud paradoxically puts on display a nudity beyond denudation, a simple nudity that is not so much the nudity of the naked body but the nudity of naked painting, of a painting that materially and spiritually calls a halt to the theological and art historical striptease in which, for so many centuries, nudity has remained caught up. It is a nudity that paradoxically is its own clothing—and nothing more.
In that sense, Kolsrud provides an answer to the question about that most mysterious of terms in Agamben’s work, form-of-life, which is to dismantle the vicious dynamic between zoe (the simple fact of living) and bios (form of life) that, as I have already indicated, is analyzed in great detail in Agamben’s Homo Sacer project—but also in other texts that are not explicitly a part of that project, such as “Nudity.”
Let me explain how this is so by returning, once more, to Jullien’s The Impossible Nude. Jullien’s book is so valuable in part because it answers important questions related to both ontology and metaphysics for the Western philosophical tradition. Those questions also pertain to the notion of “form,” which is going through something like a revival in contemporary thought. Consider a short little book that I already discussed in a previous chapter, Byung-Chul Han’s Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese. When Han discusses Western ontology and metaphysics, he characterizes Western thought as “monomorphic,” adding the Greek term “monoeides” to mark Western thought’s preference for the Platonic Idea or eidos, “Form.” But this rendering of “monomorphic,” which is already a Greek term that falls apart in the words “mono” and “morphic,” or “single” and “form,” as the Greek “monoeides,” “mono” and “eides,” which also translate as “single” and “form” seems odd—unless the Greek words morphe and eidos both mean exactly the same thing? Han does not give this any further discussion. But it is on this count that Jullien shows himself to be the more interesting thinker, since he actually rises to the challenge of the divergence that these questions open up.
In what are in my view some of the more striking pages in contemporary Western philosophical thought, Jullien writes the following:
For form, Plotinus uses two words in conjunction with each other, and often goes so far as to suggest that they can be synonymous: eidos, which is the idea-form—intelligible form, with ontological status, and morphe, which designates the contour that circumscribes matter . . . A similar ambiguity is to be found in the language of Saint Augustine: forma is used to mean (1) the model form (Intelligence, the Divine Word), (2) the external form that is the contour, and also (3) form perceived as the source of beauty. This should also be read the opposite way around: beneath the “plastic,” visible form, we keep sensing the informing, ontological, model form. Now it is out of this very ambivalence that the possibility of the nude is conceived: the Nude is the embodiment of our quest for the model, archetypal, “primary form” to be reached through the sensible form. For the nude is not just one form among others: it is the form par excellence (the Nude). It is the essential form that appears with the sensible, just as, in reverse, it is the sensible form rejoining the idea-form. In fact, through the Nude, we have tried unceasingly to find a hypostasis of Form. . . . And it is even the Nude which, because it is the most sensible—immediate to the senses, uncovered: laid bare—brings the two poles of plastic form (modeled relief and contour) and idea-form most directly into communication, within it-self. The plastic form uncovers the idea-form, and the last veil finally falls away; the idea-form ennobles the plastic form: we are in the very presence of the Idea, of the model and archetype. Hence the elevating tension of the nude: the tension is imparted by our metaphysical dualism. It gives rise to the transcendence summoned up by the nude—the vertigo of the extreme to which it leads: our awed amazement (thambos) at the nude (the ecstasy). At the same time, it melts (dissolves/resolves) this dualism into the sole unmediated possibility of perception—that which is laid bare: this explains the characteristic sense of satisfaction, concurrent and soothing, that we experience when we look at the nude.
The identification of morphe (form as contour) with eidos (form as idea) that we found in Han is, Jullien reveals, common at least since Plotinus. However, when trying to understand the unique place of the nude in the Western art historical tradition (and its unique absence in China), one must remain attuned to the difference between morphe and eidos, and the way in which eidos continues to stir underneath morphe.
While the nude is obviously hylemorphic, in the sense that it combines matter (ule) with plastic form (morphe), the nude at the same time participates in ideal form (eidos), and its significance in Western art history comes from there—from its proximity, as a plastic form, to the ideal Form (and beauty). Pushing back against the identification of morphe and eidos, as Jullien points out Heidegger among others has done, one senses “another possibility for thought,” one that would sidestep the ideal Form entirely. Jullien finds this other possibility in China, which “did not conceive of any intelligible form beyond the realm of the sensible, nor any immutable form that is an essence.” As Jullien argues throughout his work, China does not have metaphysics; it doesn’t have being, only process. The Chinese term that translates as “form” is, Jullien points out, the notion of “xing,” which “designates an ongoing actualization of cosmic energy-breath.” Form in China thus needs to be understood as “formation.” As Jullien recalls, “the great image has no form.” These arguments are repeated in his book This Strange Idea of the Beautiful, where Jullien underlines once more that in Chinese thought “No form stabilizes, no eidos is isolated.”
What we find here, according to Jullien since Plotinus, is a subtle fusion of Aristotelian ontology (the hylemorphic position) with the Platonic theory of ideal Form, which in fact made possible Western theories of art as allowing Form to appear through sensible matter/form. Thus Plotinus redeemed art from the discredit cast upon it by Plato, as Jullien points out.
As I see it, this is the precise fusion that underlies Agamben’s entire work, which takes as its starting point the Greek split between zoe and bios, the simple fact of living common to humans, animals, and gods, and ethical and political forms of life. In particular in the conclusion of Agamben’s Homo Sacer trilogy, which begins with this split, it becomes clear that what Agamben is targeting is the biopolitics of Aristotelian ontology: the hylemorphism of “life” that underlies the entire Western political tradition. To overcome the hylemorphic split, however, Agamben proposes the enigmatic notion of form-of-life, rendered in The Use of Bodies as “eidos tou biou,” a form—and I think we can say, given his use of the Greek eidos, an ideal Form—in which no zoe nor bios could easily be separated. In other words, Agamben recovers, from underneath the hylemorphic split that structures Western politics, the Platonic notion of ideal Form, something that he had been interested in since his earliest writings (as the essays on Plato in the collection Potentialities evidence).
Given all of this, it should come as no a surprise that Agamben has written about the nude, and has characterized it—positively—in precisely the terms that Jullien suggests, as having the “impact of an immutable revelation: the ‘everything is there,’ ‘this is it,’ with no horizon or receding perspective, no beyond.” There are important differences between how Agamben and Jullien characterize this nudity: whereas Jullien associates it with an event, Agamben seeks to move away from such an association (he associates the theological understanding of nudity with the “event” of denudation). Perhaps most importantly, Agamben’s “there is nothing other than this” (which characterizes the face of beautiful women) differs from Jullien’s “everything is there” in that it seeks to mark, precisely, a reduction of beauty to appearance that Agamben seeks to celebrate against a metaphysical model of nudity. But while Agamben may find a defusing of theology and metaphysics here, his language reveals—and it is Jullien who enables us to see this—that this is hardly the ultimate defusing of Western thought, which continues its life in these quotes, precisely as Jullien suggests, as “aesthetics” (which steps in to fill theology’s gap). In the nude, or rather the beautiful face of the nude, Agamben encounters the stop that, as per Jullien’s reading, the nude in the Western tradition presents. But whereas Agamben stops at this stop, so to speak, by accepting how it defuses the theological apparatus in which the nude is caught up, Jullien enables us to see the hidden tensions of this stop, the ways in which in this stop, one hears eidos stir underneath morphe.
Indeed, if Agamben finds in the beautiful face of the nude and the stop it poses to theology the form-of-life or eidos tou biou he praises elsewhere, it is clear that eidos or the ideal Form is able to realize itself aesthetically for him in the beautiful face of the nude. If Agamben’s teacher Heidegger opened up the possibility of a thought that would not identify morphe with eidos, and if Jullien considered here taking the path of morphe rather than eidos, Agamben goes the other way, back to Plato, and thus becomes the apogee of Western thought. Jullien notices many of the same things as Agamben does, but considers these in the context of the divergence between Western thought and Chinese thought. This leads him somewhere else, outside metaphysics and ontology. It leads away from an aesthetic of “the beautiful,” outside of essence and Being. This leads away from the nude, or at the very least it would lead to a very different kind of nude. Try to conceive, he writes in The Impossible Nude,
of a “form” that would be seen only—as is the case in China—as the temporary actualization of the ongoing evolution proper to all living things. Think, therefore, of a body that is only the concretion (by individuation, and hence fleetingly perceptible) of the invisible underlying mass of energy in ceaseless deployment—actualization and resorption—as it forms the universe: the consistency on which the nude hinged disappears immediately, leaving no essence to be immobilized. My body comes into the world, grows, ages, and decays. It is constant prey to the transformation that brought it into existence, even though the process is so seamless that it is imperceptible to the eye. The body presents no durable (and much less any definitive) state that might characterize it—the state immobilized by the nude—and I am aware only of different phases.
If it is difficult—indeed, impossible—to imagine such a nude, I have already indicated where this description leads Jullien: to landscape.
All of this also means that while Agamben has become known as a thinker who criticizes political exceptionalism, his thought in “Nudity” ultimately remains caught up in the exceptionalism it contests. Jullien, by contrast, operates in what could be characterized as the unexceptional Far East. And it is there, I have argued, that Kolsrud’s naked painting and its critical engagement with Agamben can also be found.