Fusing punchy 1960s rock ‘n’ roll music with the flamboyant trendsetters, style icons and musicians of the Pop Art era, Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Band is Gazelli Art House’s newest electrifying group exhibition. The show brings together thirteen artists including; 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, who over the years Robert Fraser (1937 – 1986) championed in his London gallery. Gazelli Art House not only pays homage to Robert Fraser’s artists but furthermore, serves as an extension to the 2016 This is Today exhibition at the gallery.
Arts contributor, Dominic Sylvia Lauren, sat down with curators, David G.A. Stephenson and Mila Askarova, to discuss their collaboration, This Is Today, Robert Fraser and the special edition double vinyl that was launched at the opening.
Dominic Lauren: “I would first like to ask you both if you could tell me a little bit about the exhibition and how you two came together to collaborate on this project?”
David G.A. Stephenson: “I’ve been working on this project for a long time since I wrote the song about Ed Ruscha, and then I met Derek Boshier who was introduced to me by an English artist called Clem Crosby, and I got on well with Derek and asked him if he could design a CD sleeve for the song I wrote about him. And when he did, I kept in contact with him and he told me that he was going to have a show at Gazelli Art House and that perhaps Mila might be interested in, because Mila does these incredible historical shows, Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Band, which had a number of great artists that Robert Fraser had worked with in the ‘60s, including Derek. I went to Derek’s show, was it last year?”
Mila Askarova: “Yes, in 2017.”
DS: [cont.] “I met Mila and we got to talking about how it would be great to do a show like this, but also the music side is very important in this show, so I got in contact with The Arts Club and fortunately, they loved the idea. So, it all sort of came together. That’s the gestation of things.”
MA: “And from my end, with these historical shows, the very first show we held was 3 or 4 years ago with artists from the Light and Space movement, inspired by my regular visits to LA. I didn’t know that Derek lived in LA, so it was quite nice to have the following show at Gazelli because after we held that show, we started thinking about our base in London and how it’s best to have a look at what was happening here in the 60s. We wanted to have a different take on, yet again, ‘another Pop Art show’ and make it about the Independent Group, which Derek was very much a part of. That’s how we started working with Derek and started representing him. From a programming sense, Groovy Arts Club followed the This Is Todayshow. It provided a base or an introduction, in a way, and I wanted it to be a continuation of that.”
This Is Today was Gazelli Art House’s largest group exhibition in 2016 that celebrated the influence of artists working and living in Britain during the 1950s. Furthermore, the exhibition served to trace the developments of the artist’s individual bodies of work throughout the 1960s and 1970s, aiming to showcase the work that became the precursor to Pop Art. This Is Today marked the 60th anniversary of Whitechapel Gallery’s 1956 exhibition, This Is Tomorrow, which featured artists from the Independent Group (IG). This Is Today explored the historical influences, cultural industry developments and the relationship between the influencers and the mechanisms that are in place today.
DL: “So, as you said, Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Bandis a continuation of the 2016 This Is Todayshow. Could you tell me more about it, how it relates to Robert Fraser’s Groovy Arts Club Band and how the two shows complement one another?”
MA: “It relates to the times/decades we were trying to focus on. This Is Today focused on the late 50s/early 60s. I tried to stray away from the usual suspects of artists that are normally associated with Pop Art, so most of the artists in that show were those who hadn’t been in that limelight before. That, for me, was one of the more exciting things to work on.”
DS: “This Is Today was showing the strength and originality of British art in the 50s and late 50s, and this show is showing how the art continued to strengthen. London becomes a central place in the art world from the 50s; it becomes even stronger in the 60s with Robert Fraser. Although there were other gallerists at the time, Robert Fraser was seen as a pinnacle and as putting British art on the international map.”
Through Robert Fraser’s influence and promotion of these artists, he was able to make British art as central and popular as American art at the time.
DL: “So, in a way, this show is illustrating the continued relevance and influence of British art.”
DS: “Exactly, and exciting and innovating art being produced. And Robert Fraser also became this bridge between fashion, art and music. Robert Fraser was at the middle of it all. You had to go see his gallery.”
MA: “This Is Today was also a show that brought together a lot of creatives, and I think the only thing missing from it was the music of the time. The collaborative nature of the time was a very interesting aspect that we tried to bring out in that show and in this show too.”
DS: “Architects, artists, designers and musicians all buzzing together at the time.”
Robert Fraser was a glamorous representation of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Being at the crossroads of contemporary art and rock music, Fraser brought together artists, writers, filmmakers, celebrities and rock stars, most prominently, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He is best known for being the artistic director of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, commissioning Peter Blake and Jann Haworth to create the artwork for it.
DL: “You’ve touched upon Fraser quite a lot, but what do you think made him stand out as a gallerist at the time? How was he so successful in launching and promoting these artist’s careers?”
DA: “He wasn’t successful financially, he was a terrible businessman, but the artists responded to him. He seemed to be able to encourage people and his eye was brilliant. He was able to hang a show, like Mila, in an incredible way so the works really sung. He was a visionary.”
DL: “What about the vinyl released in conjunction with the exhibition opening? What went into organising it and collaborating with these great musicians?”
DS: “I researched into the artists and I wrote all the lyrics, while Josh Stapleton, the producer, made sure that the music was sympathetic to each lyric and put it all together. An album seemed like the perfect way to celebrate Sgt Pepper and Robert Fraser. And Derek Boshier designed the cover for the vinyl. And vinyls, of course, are coming back. It seems to chime in with all of the art, fashion and music coming back too.”
MA: “There seems to be a revival of Pop Art coming back.”
DS: “And it’s a very contemporary show. If you walk in without knowing any of the artists, you will relate to it. And a lot of the artists are still producing great work. Robert Fraser would be amazed in some respects, but then again, he wouldn’t because he was the one who spotted their talent first really.”
Gazelli Art House collaborated with The Arts Club to launch the eponym double-vinyl album containing fourteen songs in tribute to Fraser, a.k.a Groovy Bob. Written, performed and produced by David G.A. Stephenson and Josh Stapleton, each song is original (e.g. “I Want To Hang Out With Ed Ruscha” and “Dubuffet Or Not Dubuffet”) and celebrates an artist from the exhibition. The vinyl is available for purchase online and at the gallery.
Words by Dominic Lauren