When I heard that Pace London was preparing an exhibition dedicated to the collection of legendary English gallerist Robert Fraser, I couldn’t help noticing the irony. I am saying this because while he built his reputation by selling artworks to the likes of Marlon Brando and William Borroughs, Pace has been consistently endorsing the instantaneous transformation of celebrity into art. It must be born in mind that, this same gallery has been showing the art of James Franco for the past three years. It is from this point of view that it is difficult to assess whether the decision of Pace’s director, Mollie Dent Blockenhurst, of paying an homage to Fraser is an act of contrition or reputation laundering.
The truth is that Fraser got ‘it’. I don’t know what is ‘it’ but he got ‘it. And he eventually got AIDS too. Brian Clarke, the show’s curator, intelligently presents his case from its very title. Named ‘A Strong, Sweet Smell of Incense: A Portrait of Robert Fraser’, this show presents itself as a visual representation of the likeness of a person. This portrait is built through the display of the objects he owned. These are the result of his personal taste but also of the people he chose to be friends with. The beauty of this show is that it does not suggest ownership but legacy. Many of those objects might have been given to him in gratitud or sheer love.
This Savile Row-clad Etonian opened his galleries in the sixties and then re-opened them in the eighties. Addicted to heroin and partying, Fraser was a proper collector who tried to compulsively acquire and use in order to fix a shaky self esteem. This might be the reason why he even became a pop icon himself, the same night he got arrested for drug possession with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during the 1967 Redlands Bust. It must be born in mind that Richard Hamilton transformed that moment into one of Pop Art’s most recognisable images.
The title of the show (‘A Strong, Sweet Smell of Incense’) is a winking reference to the police report describing the aforementioned bust.I must confess not knowing the character before visiting the exhibition. It took me, however, just minutes to realise that I was in front of both an art lover and a gentleman. It is this clarity of message that transforms this show into a triumph. Its curator, Brian Clarke gave it a go at something seemingly impossible which is to use works of art to convey its creator’s sense of rebellion, connoisseurship and hedonism at the same time.
Upon arrival, the viewer faces the hand painted bass drumskin used on the front of the cover of the Beatles’ ground breaking 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which is placed between Peter Blake’s The Beatles and Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London. It seems banal but it functions as an allegory of what Pop art stood for. At that point, we know that Fraser was all about punching in order to break through and open new paths. In fact, the word ‘Pop’ in pop art refers both to its popularity but also to the fact that the image hits the eyes as in TV. On the left side, the viewer finds what we might consider the ‘piece de resistance’ which is a reconstruction of Fraser’s studio as seen in a photo attributed to Iain Mc Millian with works by Warhol, Hockney, Dubuffet, Ellsworth Kelly, Oldenburg, Shafrazi, among others. This area is a knock out and truly does its trick. At this point, we know that this man is a man that loved things clear, bright and coherent.
On the other side of the room and hidden from the entrance, there is a huge wall where the pieces are hung as in one of those cabinet paintings by David Teniers. It is hear that Clarke does something that to me is wonderful. He plays with the irony of gathering small pieces by giants (such as Warhol, Dine, Ruscha, Twombly, Bacon, Hopper, Oldenburg, Caulfield, among others) on top of a long vitrine that goes the length of the wall and contains the invoices and letters of someone who apart from being a good friend was obviously a gentleman. In a letter to a client, he informs that he has already sent a Lichstenstein to her house in Paris before it was even paid. He added: ‘You can pay when you see it convenient’. No one would dare do such a thing today and it shows how drugs, addiction, hedonism and playfulness were not incompatible with connoisseurship, humanism and gentlemanship. Amazing show.