I was curiously following the chronicles of Mick Jagger’s lightning visit to the Reina Sofía Museum. I wasn’t that interested in matters of protocol or the minutiae of security; Above all, he wanted to know if the singer had missed the name of the esthete who introduced him to the orbit of contemporary art: Robert Fraser (1937-1986).
It would not have been so strange: last year, the Madrid Museum announced that it received a donation of a copy of Swinging London ´67the memorable painting in the series by Richard Hamilton made from a photo of paparazzi, with Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger scrambling in a police car, trying to cover their faces with their handcuffed hands. Yes, both Robert and Mick were caught in pop London’s most famous drug bust. Redlands, the rural home of Keith Richards, was surrounded by 30 police officers, an assault that resulted in scant loot: Jagger had four amphetamines, allegedly bought at a pharmacy during a trip to Italy, Fraser showed a bottle of pills that he claimed were diabetes remedies (until further analysis determined they contained pure heroin, the stuff manufactured by the H.M. Government). And Richards was also prosecuted for allowing his country residence to be used for something as nefarious as taking drugs.
There was an attempt by those involved to have the evidence removed by paying a hefty bribe (yes, such things happened frequently at Scotland Yard). The money disappeared, probably in the pockets of the intermediary, and the three defendants were sentenced to several months in prison; in fact, that same night they slept behind bars. What happened next exposed the subtleties of the British class system. Both Jagger and Richards were released pending appeal while Fraser was denied that possibility: coming from a good family, being educated at Eton and having served as an officer in the colonial army made the nature of his crime worse. He sucked more than four months of hard labor.
In 1962, he had opened the Robert Fraser Gallery in London, which made a remarkable impact. He promoted British pop art and its American or French equivalents. And it merged with the wave of groups that succeeded after the Beatles. He especially connected with the Rolling Stones, their girlfriends and their gang of dangerous comrades from across the Atlantic: Kenneth Anger, William Burroughs, Terry Southern, Dennis Hopper, Larry Rivers. They shared camels, trips to Tangier, a thousand adventures. He failed, however, to do business with Mick Jagger. He offered him works by Dubuffet, Balthus or Magritte at more than reasonable prices but the suspicious singer refused the offers, something he has always regretted.
The opportunity was seized by Paul McCartney, who acquired one of the paintings-with-apple by Magritte, which would inspire the name and logo of his future label, Apple Records. Fraser was also adamant that the Beatles scrap the planned psychedelic cover for Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, exchanged for a tableau of 20th century personalities, a logistical nightmare resolved by the painters Peter Blake and Jann Howarth over the course of two weeks. Fraser also solved the aesthetic problem of the 1968 release, the double The Beatles, by putting them in contact with another pop art figure, the aforementioned Richard Hamilton, who dispensed with baroque with a white cover.
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All in all, Robert Fraser turned out to be a lousy financial manager. His specialty was sending bad or — “oh, I forgot” — unsigned checks. His mother got him out of the worst trouble but he gradually lost the trust of artists and collectors. He was very much a dilettante; in 1969 he got bored and closed the gallery. He felt the call of the East and spent much of the seventies between India and Tibet. He had not lost the ability to excite: aware of Mick Jagger’s interest in tantrism, he managed to get rollingstone to finance the production of a documentary. The movie, Tantra: Indian Rites Of Ecstasyit was done that way and it hardly had a circulation underground.
When the Indian fever passed, Fraser lived through the most unbridled New York era of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Enthusiastic about such street art, he returned to London in 1983 and reopened the gallery in a new location. But it did him no good to be on the crest of a new wave. He was still a mess for money; to his known vices he added alcohol and anonymous sex. The social skills that allowed him to bring together aristocrats and millionaires with bohemian and underworld figures vanished. When it became known that he was suffering from that mysterious disease that was wreaking havoc on the gay scene, he was practically left alone.
He endured AIDS with stoicism. Paul McCartney and his wife Linda hugged him warmly. The Rolling Stones sent him a letter encouraging him, but his beloved Keith did not dare go upstairs to say hello one night when she passed by his London house. That is, of course, the secret of the Stones’ longevity: their impassiveness, their toughness, their refusal to look at the trail of corpses and victims they leave behind. Robert Fraser died a few months later, aged 49. Vain, he would love to know that he is finally in the collection of various museums.
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