‘Someone you had to be a bit careful with’

David Sylvester

  • Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser by Harriet Vyner
    Faber, 317 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 19627 6

Art dealers are promising subjects for biographies. They buy and sell portable objects that can easily cost more than a castle or two. They survive by outwitting some of the world’s most cunning and ruthless manipulators of wealth, and they also know how to charm the old rich, key sources of supply. When they deal in the work of living artists they shape the careers of some of the most charismatic and paranoid individuals of their time. Their operations tend to sail dramatically close to the wind of commercial ethics and sometimes of the law. And, having lived lives generally presumed to have been even shadier than they were, they may well be immortalised as builders of temples of high culture.

An authorised biography has now appeared of an English dealer of recent memory, Robert Fraser, 1937-86. His chequered career, terminated by Aids, lasted as long as it did only because of subsidies from his parents and getting away with not paying his debts, while the world at large remembers him for pictures showing him in a police van handcuffed to Mick Jagger, in whose company he had been caught in possession of drugs. But in the eyes of the avant-garde art world Fraser was one of the more worthwhile dealers of his time. According to that king of the métier Leo Castelli, he was ‘a superb dealer’; among leading artists, Richard Hamilton says that ‘Robert’s was the best gallery I knew in London,’ Ellsworth Kelly that ‘he was a very courageous and flamboyant dealer,’ Claes Oldenburg that ‘Robert really had an eye for draughtsmanship. Very few dealers have.’ He also had a great flair for presentation. To begin with, when he first opened a gallery, he chose that highly original architect, Cedric Price, to design it. And he was effective here not only as a producer but as a director. Bridget Riley tells a story of how Fraser handled a show of hers consisting of about fifty ‘very small drawings, using blacks, whites, greys and pencil notes . . . close-framed, in Perspex, so that one saw only the actual image.’ After working together all day on trying to hang them, they were in despair. Returning in the morning she found that Fraser ‘had painted the entire place black – walls, ceiling, all the woodwork, everything was completely black. And so these little light, pale studies, very fragile pieces of paper, shone, and were set off in an amazing way.’

So artists loved the way Fraser treated their work; they didn’t love the way he treated them. They all complain about the difficulty or impossibility of getting paid. Clive Barker spells out the most maddening part of it:

In the mid-1960s Robert would say to me, ‘I’ll give you that money when I see you.’ But he didn’t realise I needed it that day, to live on. He didn’t understand. It was inconceivable to him that I could need £100. I’d go down there and he still wouldn’t pay me, and yet he’d have a white Rolls Royce with a chauffeur sitting outside waiting to take him wherever he wanted to go.

But who says he paid the chauffeur?

Not settling debts is hardly unheard of in Old Etonians. But Robert was a first-generation Etonian, and might conceivably have inherited the common decency of his father, Lionel, a leading banker and industrialist whose own father had been Gordon Selfridge’s butler. Robert seemed a thorough aristo to his friends in the pop music world, but his nobbier chums looked down on him a bit. John Richardson says:

One of the odd things about Robert was that he always dressed up. The rest of us were in blue jeans and leather jackets and up to no good in the Village, but Robert always had an impeccable blazer, very Old Etonian, consciously so. I suspect he had slight chips on his shoulder about his father. There was a streak of the old-fashioned servant in a way . . . You could see that he was a butler’s grandson. That’s what one liked about him, this flash side, which he never tried to gentrify at all.

But he wasn’t as flash as the TLS reviewer thinks.

The picture on the dust-jacket of Groovy Bob gives the game away. Robert Fraser, trendy art-gallery owner of the swinging 1960s, in his Savile Row suit, closely resembles a suspicious racing tipster: the trilby tilted over narrow eyes; the jacket cut (by Huntsman?) just a little too tight for its owner to be trustworthy. The grooviness consists of a silk scarf of mildly dashing design slung over a carefully knotted tie and white shirt. This is the light disguise of a quick-change artiste.

The reviewer hasn’t picked up that this photo must have been a joke, a picture of acting at being a spiv: you only have to compare the clothes and the posture here with all the other images of Fraser in the book. The publishers just asked for trouble by using that flippant snap and catchpenny title and also by letting the first and last words in the book come from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and those on the jacket from Paul McCartney, so that Fraser is effectively handed over to showbiz. In reality, showbiz was in the margin of his life. He was a creative figure in the art world whose motivation for dealing was neither profit nor fame but a fascination with art and artists and their glamour, even if his showbiz friends seemed to have more glamour still.

At the time he opened his shop in 1962, with an exhibition of recent drawings and gouaches by Dubuffet, there were two kinds of gallery in London selling contemporary art. There were those which dealt above all in ‘modern’ and in most cases Impressionist art, of which the most established or powerful were the Lefevre, Tooth’s, the Waddington, the Mayor, the Redfern, the Leicester and above all the Marlborough, which in the contemporary field had lately consummated takeovers of many artists, including Moore and Bacon, who had been nursed to fame by pioneering smaller firms. And there were specialists in contemporary art whose positions were generally now weakening, such as Gimpel’s, the Hanover and the Beaux Arts. Fraser’s was one of a batch of new galleries dedicated to the contemporary and, indeed, to its cutting edge (a phrase probably not yet in use). The Rowan, which opened the same year as Fraser, concentrated on British artists, such as Phillip King, William Tucker, Barry Flanagan, Paul Huxley and later Bridget Riley, whereas Fraser covered British, American and European art. John Kasmin, who opened his gallery the following year, dealt in British and American art. He and Fraser were the rivals for supremacy.

Kasmin came from the Jewish middle class, went to Magdalen College School, Oxford, had no money of his own. Other key differences from Fraser were that he was heterosexual and a family man, that he preferred alcohol to drugs, that he was talkative, and that he thought hard about art where Fraser had a hip reliance on intuition. As dealers, one of their key differences was that Fraser was master in his own house whereas Kasmin had a backer, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, a young Guinness heir. Another was that Fraser lacked the experience in running a gallery that Kasmin had. Born in 1934, Kasmin had worked from 1956 to 1958 at Gallery One under Victor Musgrave, a true pioneer who in the 1950s was the first dealer in London to show Yves Klein and the Fluxus group and (at Kasmin’s suggestion) Henri Michaux and in 1962 gave Bridget Riley her first exhibition. Kasmin’s subsequent positions included a year directing the New London Gallery, a new branch of the Marlborough dedicated to new art. In 1961 he and Dufferin, who was still up at Christ Church, formed their partnership and started to build up a stable of artists.

They opened their gallery, with a show of paintings by Kenneth Noland, two years later – a beautiful space in New Bond Street designed for them by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, with a curiously shaped white ceiling, white walls and a green-khaki rubberised floor. It was a space described by Kasmin as ‘a machine for looking at pictures in’; those pictures, moreover, were prototypes of the new art. They looked as if they had been painted to be seen in museums: the space was designed for canvases six feet square and upwards that would readily carry across a large room. The gallery thereby affirmed that painting had changed fundamentally: it was no longer being made to fit into drawing-rooms. Fraser’s gallery, on the other hand, was domestic in scale, which limited what he could do.

The contemporary artists exhibited by Fraser included the following. Americans: Rauschenberg, Twombly, Oldenburg, Warhol, Dine, Chamberlain, Ruscha, Lindner and Matta. Europeans: Magritte, Dubuffet, Michaux, Bellmer, Klapheck. Britons: Bacon, Hamilton, Paolozzi, Blake, Harold Cohen, Riley, Caulfield, Gilbert and George. Kasmin’s Americans included Newman, Reinhardt, Stella, Noland, Louis, Frankenthaler, Olitski, Poons; his Britons, Caro, Tucker, Latham, Hill, Hockney, Richard Smith, Bernard Cohen, Denny, Hodgkin, Ayres, Buckley, while his one European was Pol Bury. So Kasmin’s choice was focused on abstraction, with Hockney as the joker in the pack, where Fraser’s was wider, though with an emphasis on Pop. What the two of them had in common was that they mostly did serious shows presented with style. If only we’d had more people of their calibre in the public sector!

Kasmin closed the gallery at 118 New Bond Street at the end of 1972: his partner had married a fellow Guinness who was more conservative than he was, in every way. (But Kasmin remained active, continued to represent important artists and had three different shops around Bond Street over the next twenty years.) What happened to Fraser’s gallery was the consequence of his own actions. His addiction to heroin, which took hold of him increasingly from about 1965, must have been damaging his work for some time before he went to prison in 1967 for four months. In his absence the gallery, though placed in receivership, was kept going by his assistant, Susan Loppert. When Fraser returned, ‘that was cool for a minute,’ says Jim Dine. ‘But then I think that Robert just lost interest. Like a child, his attention span was not very long.’ Dine is an artist whose judgment is always sharp but sometimes impatient: a number of interesting exhibitions were still put on at the gallery – including a show lasting an afternoon by the unknown Gilbert and George – before it closed towards the end of 1969. And if Fraser became enraptured at this time with India, he was only following a pattern that takes over most of us who go there. Jann Haworth summarises the rest of the story:

After he closed the first gallery, everybody said, ‘Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful if Robert opened another gallery?’ Like the Beatles getting back together again. But when he did open the second gallery, where was everybody? He was still putting on very interesting shows, but it was almost a non-event. And yet it shouldn’t have been. He was taking up the graffiti artists, he was at the cutting edge, but there was no real response.

Fraser, then, had not lost his touch at the time he opened in Cork Street in 1983. All the same, Dine is more or less right in saying that ‘when he started to do heroin it was the end for him.’ But, of course, using drugs is a symptom, not the disease. As Christopher Gibbs says,

There were various chimerae that he was pursuing. And they were all to do with fulfilments of some kind. I think Robert was far too enthralled with his lower nature. I really do think he was seriously indulgent to his appetites. I mean, to a loony degree, he let them rule his head and dull his heart. I don’t know what he thought he was getting out of it all – after all, he was very intelligent.

Fraser’s parents were both Christian Scientists and ready to make serious sacrifices for their faith. (This cost Lionel a terrible death: a small skin cancer, which could easily have been removed, spread all over his body and eschewal of painkillers left him screaming in agony.) However much Robert’s unruly behaviour at school distressed them, they did and went on doing all they could to be forgiving. When he fearfully confessed to his father that he was homosexual, he was told that that was all right so long as he was a good homosexual. As Gibbs says, ‘His parents encouraged him with everything he wanted to do. You know, went out of their way to try to be understanding, accepting, learn about his things.’ I saw this for myself when Fraser introduced me to his very likable mother, Cynthia, at the time he commissioned me to write the catalogue introduction for his opening exhibition (paying me well and promptly) and she talked as if I were conferring a certain respectability on his enterprise – a two-edged compliment in that it made me feel I was a pillar of the establishment. And perhaps all that parental support was two-edged for Robert. I suspect that Gibbs gets to the heart of the matter with this: ‘I think it was a bit of a disappointment to him that his father was so understanding. I think he felt it deprived him a little of the agonies of being misunderstood.’

Lionel lived long enough to see that Robert was making something of his life: he died in January 1965. Cynthia and he had already lost an adored daughter, killed in a car crash in 1958. As their elder son, Nicholas, puts it: ‘From the time my father died, Robert was the rest of my mother’s life . . . they used to have almost lovers’ tiffs, with long periods when they wouldn’t talk to one another.’ According to Susan Loppert:

His mother always used to send him things from the Christian Science Monitor and he’d say, ‘Urrgh, God!’ and throw them in the bin. There’d always be messages. His mother would ring up and say, ‘Please get Robert to ring me.’ There were always financial crises and it was always his family who got him out, but he couldn’t be bothered to ring back. He literally would say, ‘Tell her to fuck off!’

But, when he was living his long death, his mother became his partner. Brian Clarke, a constant visitor to his bedside, says that, though he had a nurse to look after him, he insisted that his mother do most of the ministering. ‘She washed certain of his clothes herself, she made certain meals for him, she sat next to him, holding his head, stroking him, and he was very, very happy. And he called her Mummy, but it was the intonation, the way he said it, just like a little boy.’

Vyner’s book uses a technique sometimes known as ‘oral history’, meaning the construction of a montage of quotes from recorded interviews with a variety of witnesses plus fragments of written matter. It is a technique used constantly in television and radio biographies but also in a few books, such as the biographies of Norman Mailer by Peter Manso (1985) and Truman Capote by George Plimpton (1997). Plimpton had previously been involved in what may have been the earliest significant biography of this kind, Edie: An American Biography ‘by Jean Stein edited with George Plimpton’, published in 1982. The technique is one which may make it possible for rich girls to produce books they might not have been able to write: assembling a montage from one’s material is a lot easier than analysing and synthesising it; and the technique also precludes the labour of finding an authorial voice. Be that as it may, Edie is a masterpiece, simultaneously effervescent and harrowing. It probably wouldn’t have been had Stein not had the nous to employ a superb journalist as a collaborator, and I think it’s a pity Vyner didn’t do the same. I also think it’s a pity that, while taking up an I Am a Camera stance, she is amateurish enough to abandon it for a while in an introductory assessment of her subject. (What did the seven characters at Faber’s named in her acknowledgments do to earn her thanks?)

The subject of Edie was Edie Sedgwick, who, born in 1943 of a patrician Wasp family, was possessed from adolescence by an all-consuming addictiveness that gradually destroyed her body and mind yet not her amazing beauty and charm, became a superstar through her appearances in Andy Warhol films and fashion magazines, and died in 1971 of barbiturate poisoning. Perhaps the best way to summon up her magic is to mention that she was the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s ‘Just like a Woman’: ‘She takes just like a woman,/She makes love just like a woman,/And she aches just like a woman,/ But she breaks just like a little girl.’

What makes the book a masterpiece is the mesmeric way in which the doom of this tragic fairy princess unfolds inexorably as the consequence of a monstrous pedigree. Conversely, what makes Vyner’s book a disappointment is its failure to show forth what really went on between Fraser and his family in his childhood and youth. It lacks the most elementary information. Cynthia was manifestly what’s called well-bred, but the book is nowhere specific about her background. Lionel worked his way up from humble origins – relatively humble origins: butlers are not without grandeur – to become a major financier, but we are not told how. And Lionel was interested enough in art to be a Trustee of the Tate, yet nothing at all is said about this or about his taste in art and what Robert thought about it and whether there was any communication between them about it.

Now, it must be said in Vyner’s defence that she was short of witnesses. Stein was able to draw on the memories and opinions of a great many articulate people who belonged to or knew the family: above all, the eldest of Edie’s seven siblings, Alice, who narrates a large part of the saga with incisiveness and insight. Fraser’s only surviving sibling is his elder brother, Nicholas, whose knowledge of the world can be gauged from the remark, ‘I don’t know whether [Robert] was the first Etonian to be a heroin addict.’

But there are other areas where Vyner simply hasn’t looked hard enough for witnesses. Among the most interesting episodes in Fraser’s life were his two confrontations with the law. The more important, the drugs case, is reasonably well handled in the book. The other is not. This was his prosecution in 1966 for staging an allegedly obscene exhibition of works on paper by Jim Dine. The case was preposterously brought under the Vagrancy Act of 1838, an obsolete Act which had been designed primarily to punish beggars who publicly exposed their wounds and sores, though it also covered the exhibition of obscene pictorial images. The prosecution resorted to this Act because of their failure in the recent Lady Chatterley’s Lover case, brought under the Obscene Publications Act, which admitted the evidence of numbers of expert witnesses where the Vagrancy Act limited this. This strategem was a piece of blatant hypocrisy, in that the terms of the Vagrancy Act required that the offending display be visible to passers-by in the street, and it is fairly certain that the exhibits inside the gallery were scarcely legible through the plate glass window.

Fraser telephoned me asking if I’d be willing to appear in court as a potential expert witness if any were called. I naturally agreed and, as the police had seized the pictures before I’d been able to get to the exhibition, arrangements were made for me to go and view them at Scotland Yard. There I was shown them by a friendly plain-clothes officer, who seemed to be in charge of the case. He had ranged the brightly coloured gouaches or collages around the walls of a room. Pointing to those shown along one wall, he asked me whether I didn’t agree that these images were suggestive of male genitals; I said I thought they could well be. Pointing to those on the opposite wall, he asked whether I didn’t agree that these might be interpreted as images of female genitals; again I agreed that they could be. He then explained that these two groups had confronted each other from the gallery’s side walls while on the end wall was a group he was about to show me. He then led me to these images and asked portentously whether I didn’t agree that they suggested a union of male and female genitals. I had to confess that I didn’t see this at all – an embarrassing admission inasmuch as it could imply that I was thinking he had a dirty mind. We parted amicably enough. I had no idea whether he recognised that I’d spoken in good faith.

When the case came to court, I found Roland Penrose and Bryan Robertson there as potential expert witnesses. The only one of us to be called was Robertson. He proceeded to give a speech which was stunning in its authority and lucidity, a quiet, patient, courteous, relentless demolition of philistinism. It turned the occasion into a moral victory. I don’t know what effect it had on the judgment: the gallery was fined 20 guineas and ordered to pay 20 guineas costs.

Groovy Bob makes too little of the story because the only interviewee, apart from two sentences from Susan Loppert, is Robertson, whose visit to Scotland Yard did not as it happens elicit that revelation of a policeman’s erotic fantasising and whose account of the court proceedings was forbidden by modesty to mention his own memorable contribution.

Fraser, then, deserves a better book, but we still owe Vyner a debt for her affectionate rescue of a remarkable man from virtual obscurity. And again and again the testimonies throw a shaft of light across the Swinging Sixties scene. Thus there are truthful accounts by intelligent individuals of what it was like to live in a continuum of drug-sodden parties. Here is Patrick Caulfield: ‘It would appear glamorous from the outside, but it wasn’t glamorous at all. It was rather painful . . . Nothing happened, we just sort of sat around – like zombies.’ The point is expanded by Jann Haworth:

nobody inquired about anything, about anybody, and it was just this sort of very stand-offish thing, and if you put together more than fifteen or twenty sentences in terms of a conversation you were intellectualising and being a kind of university swat, you know . . . And it seems so strange to me now and I can’t think why I put up with it . . . Everyone was busy being cool – but it was also incredibly lazy and unfriendly.

The book is also enlightening about the mind of Mick Jagger. This incandescent incarnation of frenzied freedom, a guest star even in Edie, which describes him as ‘the most famous singer and the one everybody wanted to fuck’ and reproduces a snapshot in which his Ovidian mouth is open to swallow the heroine, reveals, when he opens that mouth to talk to Vyner, the mentality of a petit bourgeois. Fraser

was always trying to sell me Magritte, which would have been a fantastic buy. I just didn’t have the money. If I’d known they’d be worth millions I could have raised it . . . I liked Robert very much, but he was obviously a tremendous sharpie, someone you had to be a bit careful with, moneywise and otherwise . . . Robert saw [the Beatles] as a gravy train when he knew that I was not. First of all, I was too suspicious. Second, I didn’t have the cash. I was to get the cash but I didn’t have it then. Which is unfortunate, because I could have ended up owning all these Magrittes and things.

Well, you can still buy a great Magritte for under a million.