Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jae Emerling reviews Undoing the Image

Éric Alliez and Jean-Claude Bonne. Body Without Organs, Body Without Image: Ernesto Neto's Anti-Leviathan, Becoming-Matisse: Between Painting and Architecture, and Duchamp Looked At (From the Other Side) / Duchamp With (and Against) Lacan, vols. 1–3 of Undoing the Image. Trans. Robin Mackay and Maya B. Kronic. Falmouth: Urbanomic Media Ltd., 2017–2022. 112 pp., 128 pp., and 576 pp.

Review by Jae Emerling

9 November 2023

Undoing the Image is a multivolume summa aesthetica that Éric Alliez has been elaborating for decades.  The first three volumes under review here extend the innovative and demanding works on the pas de deux between art and philosophy that he has already given us. His earlier works attest to the longstanding attention he has paid to the “disquieting strangeness” found whenever art and philosophy encounter one another. It must be said that Robin Mackay, Alliez’s tireless English translator, and Maya B. Kronic, who translated the “Duchamp With (and Against) Lacan” part of the third volume, also join in the collaborative becoming that writes these intransitive texts.

Here is how Alliez ends the first half of volume one, which is a theoretical précis for the entire summa

The homage may be a little twisted, but it goes to my maîtres: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and to all the associated collectives. They would not have fared so well without the philosophical clashes with our others: Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière. And, no doubt, in the assemblage I was able to form with Jean-Claude Bonne on the occasion of this new book, they would not have gone so far without our having to work through a difference as to how artworks are to be grasped, the continual negotiation of a différend with George Didi-Huberman’s “images.” [1:30]  

This desire to work in collaboration with—itself a performative aspect of getting beyond authorship and representation to the diagrammatic—transmits an event of written thought.  Yet not even this proliferation of voices can belie the distinctive style at work in these texts.

It is unquestionable that Alliez shares Deleuze’s idea that style is not “at all personal,” but is an act of “inventing a possibility of life, a way of existing.”[1] What differs in degree between his earlier works and the volumes under review here is the unabashedly challenging—confounding at times—style through and by which Alliez performs a singular recanting of our accepted scripts regarding modern and contemporary art and aesthetics. His thought is not so much presented as it takes on a consistency before our eyes; offering real flashes of genius and insight as it estranges us from canonical figures like Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, and Gordon Matta-Clark by rendering them impersonal, queer, stammering futural events. 

In these volumes we are given a dynamic close reading of Ernesto Neto’s 2006 installation at the Panthéon in Paris entitled Leviathan Toth, which is a “counter-installation,” a “thought-experiment that thinks by way of art” in order to construct “contemporaneity” as a concept (1:6). Alliez and Bonne’s theoretical aim in the first volume is to insist upon the open-work experimental nature of art-thought, not “to produce a philosophy of contemporary art” but to move between art and philosophy. Such a wave-movement induces “a philosophy that is contemporary with contemporary art and an art that is contemporary with contemporary philosophy” (1:6). 

They recommence this problematic in the second volume, where they construct a “Matisse-Thought” by reading across the history of modernism in order to foreground Matisse’s repeated assertion that colors are forces. To attend to the “force-play of colours-signs,” they provide detailed analyses of the destruction of form that we encounter in modern art (2:11). The distinguishing trait of Matisse—what they term his “untimely singularity”—is precisely how he goes about undoing form while refusing the “received alternative between Modernism and Tradition” (2:3). For them, “Matisse-Thought” is neither a formal evolutionary step in the history of modernism nor an avant-gardist act; instead, it embodies “the temporality of art and temporality in art” by creating works in which “becoming . . . produces nothing but itself, displays nothing but itself, in the events that it materializes via intensive construction” (2:5). Becoming is the very matter and memory of art-thought itself: it is its exhibition value.

The third volume positions Duchamp as a crux between modernism and contemporary art, but in ways that exacerbate the linguistic and pataphysical play at work in “Duchamp-Thought.” The “intensive energetics” that Matisse mobilized in his work are amplified by Duchamp (3:A5). We are presented here with a performativity of gender and wordplay eroticism that divests psychoanalytic interpretation, particularly Lacanian, of its authority, whilst Alliez and Bonne subtend their reading across Matisse-Duchamp with a powerful reassertion of Henri Bergson’s work.

Our images of these figures dissolve through Alliez and Bonne’s oblique and untimely returns to them. What we are given is an intensive rendering of the figure of Duchamp as “Duchamp-thought,” or of Matisse as “Matisse-thought,” so that we might escape and rewrite the history of art and philosophy. This is an undoing of the image (défaire l’image) that is less an iconoclastic gesture than an act of de-framing and composing at once in order to give us new conceptual personae and mediators: signal-forces rather than sign-forms.    

Within these volumes the requisite productive tension between the history of art and philosophical concerns is nothing less than inspiring. This is one of many benefits gained from the art historian Bonne’s collaboration. A mastery of the art-historical literature on each artist is proven throughout, even as each figure (Matisse, Duchamp, Matta-Clark, Buren) is re-created as a “future contemporary” (a phrase Alain Badiou once said of Deleuze) whom we must re-encounter anew.[2] Thus, Alliez and Bonne attend to the art-historical interpretations of Duchamp (his artistic practices, historical context, reception, and discursive function) with the assured pace of archivists, but then the text suddenly concatenates transdisciplinary ideas with a breathtaking speed and lyricism that, at times, leaves one nonplussed about where the argument made a turn or how (or if) it advanced. These velocities, along with Alliez’s penchant for doubles entendres, puns, and neologisms—all of which proliferate without end when he works with Duchamp’s own language games—generate a sensation of wave-motion, a movement at once rhythmic and wild: pluripotent. 

It may very well be that they maintain this immanent undulating movement through an inimitable style, but it is nonetheless true that Alliez and Bonne are performing at a very high level here: surveying cross sections of modernism; taking real conceptual risks; accelerating an infinite-divergent game with no resolution (a new Baroque chaosmos) that creates subterranean passages between ideas and figures; and challenging well-established interpretations of modern art. Most importantly, however, they leave one with a sense that we have just encountered vital, impassioned, intensive theoretical work: a diagrammatic art history offered as a way to escape phenomenology and undo the image-form of contemporary art.

Explicating how and why we must get beyond phenomenology as a philosophical, experiential, and interpretative framework has long been Alliez’s aim. His untranslated great early work De l’impossibilité de la phénoménologie: Sur la philosophie française contemporaine (1995) announces the entirety of this position by extending the work of Deleuze and Guattari. In Undoing the Image, the necessity of escaping the presumptions of phenomenology instigates detailed critiques of the ontology and autonomy of art as well as art-historical method. This sustained critique of aesthetic phenomenology links with their desire to undo the image-form of contemporary art, which includes its commodification and exchange value, via “the arc of forces Matisse/Duchamp to which, against all narrowly archivist reason, we have subjected it; so as then to be remade by the ‘genealogy’ of practices and theoretical practices (those of Daniel Buren, of Gordon Matta-Clark—in dialogue with Robert Smithson—and of Günther Brus; and returning in Hélio Oiticica’s ‘Boîte,’ from which Ernesto Neto extracts himself)” (1:28). These varied practices are linked less by their historical contingency than through their “affirmed geopolitics of art,” Alliez and Bonne insist. This “geopolitics of art” resists the pictorial and sublimating turn in contemporary art with an onto-aesthetics of signal forces (1:28).

Alliez and his collaborators encourage us to engage “the politics of experimentation in the deregulation of all the senses and of all aesthetic forms of expression and content, of bodies and signs” (1:94). The challenge of these texts is clear: experiment with onto-aesthetic modes of resistance; transmit past-future signal-forces here-and-now; touch an outside by thinking and creating through diagrams as well as cultural archives and histories. All so that we may invent a minor key, reimagine other conceptual portraits, and reorient our transdisciplinary critical practices toward open, (in-) consistent futures.


[1] Gilles Deleuze, “Life as a Work of Art,” in Negotiations 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York, 1995), p. 100.

[2] Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy, trans. David Macey (London, 2009), p. 113.