Pace gallery celebrates the life and influence of art dealer Robert Fraser with a very personal exhibition in February and March. Fraser brought Op Art and Pop Art to London from New York, becoming known as Groovy Bob for his Swinging Sixties lifestyle and inspiring the Beatles song Dr Robert. The London exhibition, curated by his friend and artist Brian Clarke, reveals how strong Fraser’s mark on Sixties culture really was and highlights its presence in the art world today
Brian Clarke met Robert Fraser half a century ago in the swirl of Swinging London. Today Clarke is a world-renowned stained glass artist who collaborates with top architects like Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster. Fraser — art dealer and seminal socialite — was one of Clarke’s earliest supporters.
In 2015 it’s the artist in the curating seat as Clarke constructs a portrait of his old friend for Pace gallery’s new show A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense: A Portrait of Robert Fraser. Clarke was among several of the artists now represented by Pace who were formerly with the Robert Fraser gallery. The exhibition includes art about Fraser, exhibited by Fraser, admired, owned, or supported by him. Highlights include a recreation of his desk and a portrait of the dealer painted by Jean Michel-Basquiat, whom he represented in the 1980s.[two_columns_one]
Fraser was an old Etonian who became known for his early support of Op Art and Pop Art. His artist roster read like a roll call of the post-modern avant-garde who made it to the big time, often via him. He exhibited work by Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Keith Haring, and Ed Ruscha, to name a few. Works by these artists plus Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Hopper and many others are showing at Pace, which will hold a simultaneous exhibition of Clarke’s work at its second London space. An especially commissioned window by Clarke will be installed at Pace Lexington Street, 10 minutes’ walk from A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense at Pace Burlington Gardens.[/two_columns_one] [two_columns_one_last]
In the Sixties Fraser’s home, near his Duke Street gallery in Mayfair, became a salon for the jet set and his opening nights attended by the era’s biggest stars, from John Lennon and Yoko Ono (whom he introduced), to William Burroughs and Marlon Brando. It is Mick Jagger’s handcuffed wrist that appears alongside Fraser’s in Richard Hamilton’s famous 1968 collage showing the pair leaving court in a police van, from which Pace takes its exhibition title. It was Fraser who arranged for Peter Blake to make the album cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. Known as Groovy Bob for his rock’n’roll lifestyle, the Beatles track Dr. Robert is also thought to be about him.
Groovy Bob was credited not only with kick-starting the Mayfair gallery scene that continues today but with rejuvenating London’s commercial art world, which stood accused of having sunk into an uninspired taste for passé convention. After a 1970s hiatus when Fraser spent time in India, it was Clarke’s work that he chose to re-launch his gallery with at a new space on Cork Street in 1982. Victoria Miro bought the space in 1985 before becoming one of London’s most respected galleries.
In high contrast to Fraser, Clarke was brought up working class in the north of England. Having picked up his love for ecclesiastical Gothic style there, he went on to push stained glass in to a secular context. Often described as an ‘architectural artist’ he produces stained-glass works and large paintings, as well as drawings and sculptures, with each medium influencing his approach to the other. His work is installed around the world in buildings from research centres, museums and shopping malls, to mosques, synagogues, and churches. Global corporations commission him, for which he continues to use the medieval techniques of glass etching found in the oldest cathedrals in England. The former punk draws the line at working for some companies, however, and admits to seeing clients as the enemy because of their predilection for the banal. He tries to maintain a radical approach for those commissions he does accept, depicting HIV cells, for example, or integrating abstract shapes in to conventionally figurative contexts such as church windows. It says something of his character that Francis Bacon made Clarke the sole keeper of his estate.
Clarke has said that art “opens a window on to an alternative reality” and believes the artist “stands for the alternative, no matter what it costs”. Such righton Sixties-speak sounds quaint when set against the commercial savvy of contemporary artists and the mega-rich clientele of global galleries such as Pace. But the frisson between provocative counterculture and powerful wealth has always been art’s trump card, as Fraser well knew. Pace has made its name on scholarly exhibitions but having Clarke curate a show like this will inject a more personal tone, while pointing to the gallery’s own heritage alongside the glamour and energy that was radicalism in Mayfair.
The exhibition runs from 6 February to 28 March 2015
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Art Issue #29, on page 102.