These books are worth noticing together (even though one of them is in fact a reissue) because of the things they tell one about how the British contemporary art world, as we now know it, came to be the way it is. In many ways one book reflects the other, while at the same time seeming to contradict it.
The Art of John Piper, by David Fraser Jenkins and Hugh Fowler-Wright, is a massive tome, hardbound and too big to read comfortably on one’s lap, is published by Unicorn, in conjunction with the Portland Gallery. Groovy Bob: The Life & Times of Robert Fraser, by Harriet Vyner, was first published by Faber & Faber as long ago as 1999, and now re-appears in paperback, seventeen years later, from Henni Publishing.
In both of these books one finds a British art world, different in each case, but nevertheless each of them confident that they are the only worlds that really count within their time and context, but now entombed like a flies in two different chunks of amber.
Piper first came to notice as a between-the-wars abstractionist, though one who was not consistently abstract. He was a kind of junior figure in the kind of British avant-garde art world, itself very much ‘junior’ to what was then happening in Paris, that was dominated by stronger personalities, such as that of Ben Nicholson.
What really both made and, in a certain sense also unmade him, was World War II. His work had always been related to an interest in and an emotional response to architecture. His romantic visions of destroyed, and, alternatively, of defiantly surviving historic structures, chief among them Windsor Castle, made him seem like the patriotic representative of a nation at war. Henry Moore achieved the same position, even more directly, through his Shelter Drawings. Thereafter he was always, like it or not, a member of the British cultural establishment, to a point where the up-and-comers of the 1960s and 1970s tended to regard him as having sold out. Nevertheless, during those years Piper was represented (1962-1983) by the Marlborough Gallery, financially the most successful London commercial gallery of its period.
The earliest part of this period overlaps with the brief time, from April 1962, when he opened the doors of his gallery, until February 1967, when he was arrested on drugs charges and eventually sent to prison, that Robert Fraser was the hippest art dealer in London. After a long interval, much of it spent in India, Fraser opened a new London gallery in 1979, but things weren’t the same. The climate of the art world had changed. He died of AIDS in 1985.
What is striking about Vyner’s text, read today, seventeen years after its first publication, is that Groovy Bob’s success was not only ephemeral, but also very incomplete – even if one leaves out the fact that Fraser was never a success financially. True, some fairly big names were exhibited by him at the height of his success – Caulfield, Jim Dine, Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton. Hamilton’s painting, Swingeing London, which shows Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger being driven away from court in handcuffs, is still an iconic emblem of its period.
There are, however, quite a few major artistic names from the period that aren’t there: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Anthony Caro, to name just a few British ones. Vyner’s book, an intricate collage of statements from eye-witnesses to Fraser’s career, is, by contrast, full of the names of once fashionable art-world hangers-on that carry no echo now. They have faded away in the years since her book’s original publication.
In fact, a striking paradox about Groovy Bob is that the names in it that still resonate today are not so much those of the artists in Robert Fraser’s circle, but those of the pop musicians he hung out with: Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney. Pop music is generally supposed to be essentially ephemeral. The best visual art is supposed to be the opposite. Go figure.
The Art of John Piper, by David Fraser Jenkins and Hugh Fowler-Wright, Unicorn in association with the Portland Gallery, London
Groovy Bob: The Life & Times of Robert Fraser, by Harriet Vyner, Henni Publishing, London
Words: Dryden Mackenzie © Artlyst 2016