Xavier Douroux (1956–2017)

Left to right: Alexander Nagel, Xavier Douroux, and François Hers, 2009. Photo: Alexander Nagel

THE WORLD IS SUDDENLY POORER without Xavier Douroux, who recently succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty-one. A curator first of all, his engaged practice led him to also became a community organizer, a book publisher, a film producer, and a friend to many inside and outside the art world, including me.

Xavier had a remarkable knack for starting improbable projects, well outside existing institutions, only to have them become indispensable to the larger world they touched. In the late 1970s, at the age of twenty-two, he and Franck Gautherot founded a center for contemporary art in Dijon, resisting the impulse simply to add on to what was already happening in Paris and New York. The result, Le Consortium, is now a celebrated institution, known for its independent-minded programming.

In tandem with overseeing the activities of the art center, Xavier began the publishing house Les Presses Du Réel, which expanded its list to become perhaps the foremost publisher for art and culture in France. With typical independence, the first art-historical publication produced by the Presses focused on the art of the peasant war of 1525, a reissue of Maurice Pianzola’s out-of-print Peintres et Vilains from 1962. He told me recently that publishing that book was, he felt still, one of his proudest accomplishments. The book chronicles the way disenfranchised communities of peasants across a wide German-speaking region were able to organize and signal to one another through the visual imagery developed by peasants themselves and by artists of the period attuned to the peasant struggle. I think Xavier took this integration of art and grass-roots social organization as a model for his own efforts, in particular his involvement in the Nouveaux Commanditaires.

The Nouveaux Commanditaires (New Patrons), developed in the early 1990s by the artist François Hers in close collaboration with Xavier, was and remains a new modality for organizing contemporary production in response to a demand for art issuing from outside the art world. In this sense, it in some ways recalls a precapitalist mode of art production in which art was actuated by commissions, requiring a constant attuning of artistic gestures to external realities. This model of “engaged” art is quite different from the forms of participatory works that have been dominant in the United States, where artistic output is typically formulated by the artist or the artistic institution and then becomes a platform for public use. The New Patrons have produced hundreds of works across Europe and are now beginning to work in the US. The 2013 compilation of essays and conversations by Hers and Douroux, Art without Capitalism (Presses du Réel), stands as a manifesto for the project.

Xavier was a self-effacing leader, one of those people with the magical skill of making things happen through engaging and collaborating with others. He never made one feel how influential and important he was, which is part of the reason he so often got the best out of people. He was simply curious, and when he became interested in an idea, he seemed to always know how to go from its conception to its realization. If the process was smooth, he knew how to move very fast. If it was complicated, and that was part of the work the conception had to go through, he knew how to stay with the process and see it through.

I fondly remember a trip we took together in 2009, with Hers, to the town of Grasse in southern France, where we spent some time looking at paintings by Rubens in the cathedral. Xavier was curious about the fact that the paintings were originally made for the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome and arrived in Grasse more than a century later. When I informed him that the paintings were not a cycle so much as a series of scenes designed to highlight the importance of Santa Croce and the relics contained there—that the works were held together less by a unity of narrative or style than by a cat’s cradle of references that connected them to their original surroundings—his eyes lit up, though he said nothing. A bit of art history had offered him a provisional model for thought. There was no need to crush it by formulating a principle or throwing out easy parallels to modern and contemporary experiments with site-specific art. He quietly took it in and let it spin in his mind.

Alexander Nagel is a professor of fine arts at The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.