OLIVIER DEBROISE, 1952-2008
Olivier Debroise, 56, a prolific scholar and curator of Mexican modern art and a key figure in the country’s art world for more than three decades, died from a heart attack in Mexico City on May 6, 2008. As coordinating curator in the Department of Visual Arts at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), he had been working on plans for the university’s new contemporary art museum, designed by Teodoro González de León and scheduled to open in September.
A French citizen born in Palestine, Debroise lived in Poland, Morocco and Brazil before settling in Mexico in 1970, where he became the art critic for La Cultura en Mexico (1979-86), La Jornada (1986-94) and Reforma (2000-03). He helped found the curatorial think tank Grupo Teratoma as well as CURARE, an alternative art critics’ association and magazine. He published scores of articles and books, ranging from studies of Diego Rivera in Montparnasse (1979) and Mexican art in the 1920s and 1930s (1982) to a survey of photography in Mexico (1999).
As a curator, Debroise helped integrate Mexican modern art into the international exhibition circuit, bringing a leftist political bent to numerous landmark shows, such as "Modernity and Modernization in Mexican art" at the Museo Nacional de Arte (1991), "The Bleeding Heart/El corazón sangrante" at the ICA, Boston (1991), and "David Alvaro Siqueiros: Portrait of a Decade," which traveled from Mexico City to Houston, Santa Barbara and the Whitechapel Gallery in London (1997). His curatorial projects also included the cross-border art show "InSITE97," which saw artworks installed in public places in both San Diego and Tijuana, and "The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997," which premiered at UNAM in 2007 and travels this year to MALBA in Buenos Aires and the Pinacoteca in São Paulo.
A wide-ranging intellectual, Debroise completed three novels, the most recent of which, Cronica de las destrucciones (1998), is a reimagining of the early post-Conquest history of Mexico. He directed the film A Banquet in Tetlapayac about Sergei Eisenstein’s Qué viva Mexico. The critic and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, who worked with Debroise on the "Discrepancies" show, describes him as "one of the most ferocious critics and curators of the art of Mexico, the inventor of the notion of the curator as a leftist cultural politician, a homosexual novelist who explored the crossroads of history, violence and desire, and an equally devastating cultural agent in demolishing myths and provoking institutional transformations."
Debroise’s unexpected death shook the fractious Mexico City art world, whose leaders turned out to pay their respects at the wake and funeral, among them most of the city’s museum directors, curators, foundation heads, collectors and artists, including Francis Alÿs, Melanie Smith, Thomas Glasford, Alex Navarrete and Enrique Serrano.