Robert “Groovy Bob” Fraser was a charismatic gallery owner and art dealer who, in many ways, embodied the spirit of the so-called Swinging Sixties. He was the handsome, dedicated follower of fashion in the clothes sense, but a leader of fashion in the artistic sense by embracing the British pop art movement and championing many of its artists. He was the King of Cool, the archetypal party-goer who befriended many of the top musicians of the day including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, members of whom who would mingle together with artists at his Duke Street Gallery or his Mount Street flat. That marriage of pop and pop art seemed one made in heaven, or at least in Mayfair.
In this romantic spirit and, as part of a trend for putting on shows with an historical angle at the start of each year, the Gazelli art gallery have mounted a nostalgic look at the pop art movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. With more than 50 works on show, it’s the biggest they have exhibited in terms of the numbers of works and artists represented, namely Clive Barker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Brian Clarke, Jim Dine, Jean Dubuffet, Richard Hamilton, Keith Haring, Jann Haworth, Bridget Riley, Ed Ruscha and Colin Self.
The choice of line-up was determined by musician David Stephenson. He’d written a song about his love for the American pop artist Ed Ruscha, based on some of the text that Ruscha had included in his works. He subsequently penned songs about others from the pop art school. As he explained to me, “I quickly realised that most of the artists I wrote about had shown me the Robert Fraser Gallery and then I had this idea that it would be fantastic to record a whole album and call it Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Band.” The album, a double, is available in vinyl only, naturally.
The title is, of course, a parody of the Beatles’ famed album for which Robert Fraser art-directed the cover, commissioning Peter Blake and Jann Haworth to create it. Blake has similar collages on show here, as above. What brought Stephenson’s idea to fruition at the gallery was a meeting with the artist Derek Boshier. Boshier had designed the sleeve of the CD single that Stephenson had written about him.
He had also contributed to the show This Is Today, that Mila Askarova, Gazelli’s owner, had staged in 2016 that celebrated the influence of Abstract Expressionism on British artists as a precursor to the pop art movement. Boshier introduced her to David Stephenson. The idea then developed for the artists’ works to be accompanied by the sounds of Stephenson’s album together with videos of those still alive at work in their studios. The music/art connection is thus revisited and typified by Boshier’s David Bowie, Jack Kerouak and David Bowie (2016). Boshier also designed the album cover.
“It seemed like the right time to do the exhibition,” says Mila Askarova. “There are many Warhol shows in Europe, there’s a Keith Haring coming up in Liverpool, so there’s a pop art theme that comes back from time to time which is quite nice…and with all these gallery shows and the reconstruction of the Robert Fraser Gallery at The Pace a few years ago, it’s one of those movements that won’t die and keeps on resurfacing.”
It was in 1956 when the Whitechapel Gallery’s This Is Tomorrow exhibition first showcased British pop artists as part of a collaborative effort involving 37 British architects, painters and sculptors including Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Alison and Peter Smithson. The gallery is once again reviving that collaboration in their Is This Tomorrow? show in February.
The Gazelli show therefore has context, yet is not just about the past. Its exhibits span the years from 1959 through to 2018. Among the later pieces are a series of Spitfire works by Brian Clarke in both watercolour and oil, and a collection of cardboard portraits such as Rouge Rogue White, above, by Jann Haworth that simply, but highly effectively, represent female empowerment.
The Swinging Sixties had a darker side to it. Robert Fraser’s gallery was also frequented by rent boys and general rough trade. Fraser himself was heavily into class A drugs. Famously, he was present at Keith Richards’ house, Redlands, in 1967 when the police raided. Richard Hamilton included the photograph of Fraser handcuffed to Mick Jagger as they were driven away in his Swingeing London piece also on show here. Fraser shouldered the blame for the drugs that were found at the scene and served a four-month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs. Clive Barker created silkscreens of genuine letters from the prison governor, exhibited in the show, that refuse the delivery of mail to his prisoner.
Though he opened another gallery in London in the 1980s, Fraser’s hedonistic lifestyle and self-destructive streak brought about a decline and he died of AIDS in 1986 at the age of 49.
But by introducing the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg to the UK along with all the British artists, Fraser shook up the musty British art establishment thereby helping to change the perception of art here forever. And you get a sense of how pop art’s legacy is still thriving from this show.
Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Band is showing at the Gazelli Art House, 39 Dover Street, London W1S 4NN until 23 February 2019
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.