The spirit of ROBERT FRASER was conjured in a stellar tribute show at Pace Gallery, Burlington Gardens curated by Brian Clarke and Harriet Vyner from a concept by Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst.
Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Art Line Archive / Pace Gallery. Index page portrait by courtesy of MARTIN BOOTH
EVERY GENERATION in each of the three key centres of modern art – Paris, New York and London – has produced dealers who have seemed to effortlessly connect with the zeitgeist. Occasionally they have been appreciated and applauded for their vision, at other times it has required the reverse lens of history to see and understand the vital role they played in the evolution of the art of their time. Post-war, it was the Americans who dominated the first wave of contemporary galleries, perhaps epitomised by Leo Castelli, who opened on East 77th Street, New York, in 1957. Captured later in an iconic Robert Mapplethorpe portrait, Castelli became as famous as his artists – and sometimes more readily recognised. The American influence – and the dynamic of American art – spread to London in the early ‘60s where a small number of dealers turned their backs on the market dominance of Paris to embrace this new energy. Britain had been cowed by post-war austerity right through the ‘50s and people across the social spectrum were ready for radical change. In London, three young dealers quickly engaged with the new trans-Atlantic romance. John Kasmin opened in 1963 to champion American colour field painting (and, paradoxically, David Hockney; James Mayor, heir to the famous Mayor Gallery, had gone to imbibe New York (he would return to revitalise the gallery programme with American artists); and, in Mayfair, the unlikely figure of an effete Old Etonian opened a gallery devoted to what would now be called ‘cutting edge’ art.
You might have expected to find Robert Fraser idling in some Old Master gallery in St. James’s, or propping up a desk at Christie’s. Quite how he came to operate one of the decade’s most exciting, controversial and seminal art galleries is still contentious – despite the mass of documentary material and personal reminiscences still available. The peculiar genius of Fraser was recreated recently by Pace Gallery (London) in an outstanding evocation of the Duke Street gallery (1962-69) and his re-entry to the art world in Cork Street (1982-85). The exhibition was conceived by Pace’s visionary director, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, who persuaded the mercurial artist Brian Clarke to curate the show, and with archival research by Harriet Vyner.
Fraser’s second gallery had closed over 30 years ago and his legacy diminished. But the power of one of the world’s leading galleries, harnessed to Clarke’s genuine affection for a friend and mentor, resulted in a once-only opportunity to appreciate the breadth of Fraser’s activities, his quixotic nature and particular sensibility for art and artists. And the delicious irony being that Fraser was readily revealed as being very much a dealer for today.
To the myriad of working class artists who made it big in the ‘60s, Fraser was a toff from that rarefied parallel world epitomised by Eton. The Jaggers and Lennons of this irreverent new society were as much enraptured by these scions of privilege as the old monied class was by them. In fact, Fraser was very much an arriviste. His father Lionel was a self-made man (finance) whose own father had famously been butler to Gordon Selfridge. Even close friends noted a certain formality about Robert that he used as part of his schtick, and he was renowned for his ever dapper appearance.
Even as a school boy, Robert Fraser had a deep-rooted psychological problem with money, not only keeping it, but handing it over. The paying of a bill – no matter who was owed the money – became a battle of wills. There are numerous reports of his being threatened with physical violence over debts. In time, his artists got progressively more vociferous on the subject. Fraser also had a more guarded, alternative lifestyle – as a risk taking homosexual with an ever increasing dependence on heroin, later alcohol. He kept this darker netherworld away from the majority of his artists and acquaintances, maintaining only a few truly close friendships whilst neatly compartmentalising them all. Some of his friends never even met each other.
As ‘Groovy Bob’ (©Terry Southern) Fraser orbited the ‘60’s jet set – The Beatles and Rolling Stones milieu; sponsoring Yoko Ono at the Indica gallery where she first met John Lennon; allegedly re-art directing the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover by suggesting his own artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth; and being immortalised by Richard Hamilton in Swingeing London 67, a painting depicting Fraser and Mick Jagger handcuffed together in connection with the notorious Mars Bar drugs trial. Fraser got six months in Wormwood Scrubs after pleading guilty to heroin offences. Another curious brush with the police had occurred in 1966 at a Jim Dine works-on-paper exhibition. Allegedly pornographic drawings were seized and Fraser prosecuted under the arcane Vagrancy Act: the gallery was fined 20 guineas and ordered to pay 20 guineas in costs.
When Fraser left prison he rapidly lost interest in the gallery business – kept open meantime by the unswervingly loyal Susan Loppert – and it closed in 1969. It had played host to, among others, Hamilton, Riley, Caulfield, Blake, Paolozzi, Dine, Oldenburg, Ruscha, Dubuffet, Lartigue, Henri Michaux, Dennis Hopper, Magritte, Balthus, Hans Bellmer, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, and put on the truly ground-breaking exhibition Los Angeles Now (January 1966). Gilbert & George had their first shows at 69 Duke Street. Fraser duly left for a seven year sojourn in India. It was the end of an era.
Brian Clarke met Robert Fraser for a second time via pop impresario, Malcolm McLaren. Clarke was working through a sybaritic period in his life back then – ‘I behaved like a piece of s**t’, he confessed later. A meteoric and rewarding career had seen Clarke – painter, designer, architectural artist – become recognised as one of the UK’s most promising creators of stained glass works. In later years he would become Britain’s pre-eminent exponent, fulfilling high profile contracts across the world. In 1981, he was a happily profligate and sociably glamorous character, living in Sir William Russell Flint’s old studio in Kensington. The two hit it off immediately. For Clarke, the former dealer embodied a legend from a golden time he had been too young to experience; for Fraser, Clarke must have represented the ‘now’ factor – with a pzazz that was missing from his current life in the hinterland of contemporary art. And Clarke was to be the catalyst to get the Fraser Gallery reinstated – this time in Cork Street, then the very apex of the London art scene.
When Fraser reopened in 1982, it was for Brian Clarke’s exhibition of paintings, with a star-studded party that spilled out on to the street. At that moment it must have seemed like old times. But those times had changed and despite the overwhelmingly positive press, percipient exhibitions (Basquiat, Haring) and financial and moral support from Clarke, Fraser’s methodology too was of the past. His health and alcohol intake, obsessive private life, and unreformed financial promiscuity signalled approaching disaster. When Fraser was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 it arrived. He died at home in 1986.
Brian Clarke is fiercely loyal to his friends and he devoted much energy and focus to creating this outstanding tribute to Fraser, using artworks from the original Duke Street exhibition programme and a mountain of ephemera to conjure up the essence of the ‘60s legend. It was co-curated by Harriet Vyner, whose book Groovy Bob (Faber, 1999) represents the definitive profile of the man for whom the stars once aligned. The expansive Pace Gallery installation also did full justice to the wealth of material, as did the outstanding, large format hardback catalogue that accompanied the show. A truly historic event.
A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense:
A Portrait of Robert Fraser
Hb. 264pp. 100+ col illus.
A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense:
A Portrait of Robert Fraser
Pace Gallery (Burlington Gardens), London W1
6 February – 1 April 2015
Featuring: Kenneth Anger, Francis Bacon, David Bailey, Clive Barker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Larry Bell, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Edward Burne-Jones, Patrick Caulfield, John Chamberlain, Brian Clarke, Jim Dine, Jean Dubuffet, John Dunbar, Liz Finch, Richard Hamilton, Keith Haring, Jann Haworth, Dennis Hopper, Mark Innerst, Alain Jacquet, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mapplethorpe, Claes Oldenburg, Eduardo Paolozzi, AWN Pugin, Jamie Reid, Gerhard Richter, Larry Rivers, Georges Rouault, Ed Ruscha, Colin Self, Tony Shafrazi, Cy Twombly, Mies van der Rohe, Andy Warhol.