Was Robert Fraser or John Kasmin the greatest British Art dealer of the second half of the 20th Century?
Robert Fraser was not only a man that captured the zeitgeist of an era but he was perhaps the greatest British art dealer of the 20th century. His gallery was responsible for introducing the London art world to Peter Blake, Jim Dine, Richard Hamilton, Bridget Riley and Andy Warhol among others. Fraser encapsulated the “Swinging Sixties” in London with gusto and vitality and although a lesser figure in terms of the public conscience, he was as central to the era as Mick Jagger, Mary Quant and The Beatles. Robert Fraser was the flamboyant, gay son of a wealthy Scottish banker. Along with the legendary art dealer John Kasmin they were considered the most innovative art dealers of their time. Both dealt in British and American art and both were London’s key rivals for art supremacy.
Kasmin’s roster of artists included Americans Barnet Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. British artists, Anthony Caro, David Hockney, Richard Smith, Howard Hodgkin and Gillian Ayres. Kasmin’s focus was based on abstraction, with Hockney as the one figurative artist on the ship. Fraser had a broader scope with an emphasis on Pop Art. Their one common denominator was their ability to curated some of the most innovative and serious shows of their time.
David Sylvester wrote, 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, and preferred alcohol to drugs viewed art academically, 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.
Critic David Sylvester wrote,”Fraser was one of the most charismatic forces of the era. According to the late New York gallerist Leo Castelli, he was ‘a superb dealer’; among leading artists, Richard Hamilton said that ‘Robert’s was the best gallery I knew in London,’ Ellsworth Kelly stated; that ‘he was a very courageous and flamboyant dealer,’ Claes Oldenburg said 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.’ Frasers artists included, Americans: Rauschenberg, Twombly, Oldenburg, Warhol, Dine, Chamberlain, Ruscha, Lindner and Matta. Europeans: Magritte, Dubuffet, Michaux, Bellmer, Klapheck. Britons: Peter Blake, Frances Bacon,Richard Hamilton, Paolozzi, Blake, Harold Cohen, Riley, Caulfield, Gilbert and George and later Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat.”
Fraser was educated at Eton and spent several years in Africa in the 1950s as an officer of The King’s Rifles; it was later rumoured that during this time he had a sexual liaison with the young Idi Amin. After a period spent working in galleries in the United States, he returned to England and with the help of his father (a wealthy financier who had also been a trustee of the Tate Gallery) in 1962 he established the Robert Fraser Gallery in Duke St, Grosvenor Square, London. The gallery interior was designed by Cedric Price. It became a focal point for modern art in Britain
In 1966 the Robert Fraser Gallery was prosecuted for staging an exhibition of works by Jim Dine that was described as indecent (but not obscene). The works were removed from the gallery by Scotland Yard and Fraser was charged under a 19th Century law that applied to street beggars. Fraser was fined 20 guineas and legal costs. Fraser became well known as a trendsetter during the Sixties — Paul McCartney has described him as “one of the most influential people of the London Sixties scene”. His London flat and his gallery were the foci of a “jet-set” salon of top pop stars, artists, writers and other celebrities, including members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, photographer Michael Cooper, designer Christopher Gibbs, Marianne Faithfull, Dennis Hopper (who introduced Fraser to satirist Terry Southern), William Burroughs and Kenneth Anger. Because of this he was given the nickname “Groovy Bob”. He is also thought to be an inspiration for the character “Dr. Robert” in the song of the same name on The Beatles album Revolver. Fraser sponsored the 1966 exhibition by Yoko Ono at the Indica Gallery at which she first met John Lennon. Fraser art-directed the famous cover for The Beatles’ 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — he dissuaded the group from using the original design, a psychedelic artwork created by the design collective The Fool, instead suggesting the pop artist, Peter Blake, who created the famous collage cover design. Fraser also gave Paul McCartney a small painting of an apple by Rene Magritte which is believed to have been the inspiration for the name and logo of the Beatles’ record company, Apple Records. It was also through Fraser that Richard Hamilton was selected to design the poster for the White Album. His gallery also hosted “You Are Here”, Lennon’s own foray into avant garde art during 1968.
The downfall of Fraser’s gallery was the consequence of his own actions. His addiction to heroin, took hold of him increasingly from about 1965, damaging his concentration. He was arrested and went to prison in 1967 for four months. This was the drug bust famously depicted by Richard Hamilton titled ‘Swingeing London’ showing Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in the back of a police car with the art dealer. In his absence the gallery was placed in receivership but kept going by his loyal 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. After years in India, Fraser returned to London opening a gallery in Cork Street. Despite being the first to show New York artists Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, the gallery had little success in recapturing the interest of his earlier efforts. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1986.
Kasmin opened a large white space in 1963 on New Bond Street that was unusual for the time – until then most commercial galleries had been domestic in scale. Kasmin closed his gallery in 1972 but continued to operate in partnership with other London dealers into the 1990s. Kasmin’s son Paul is also an art dealer.
Photo: Artist Richard Hamilton stands in front of portrait of Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger © ArtLyst 2010