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Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser
By Harriet Vyner
(Book Review)

©1999 Faber and Faber
317 pages
ISBN 0-571-19627-6
hardcover, $25.00

Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser promises much. With energetic jacket copy highlighting its subject, British art dealer Robert Fraser, as "one of fashionable London's most celebrated figures, owner of the most exciting modern art gallery;" its promise of an Austin-Powers-style time machine trip back to 60's London; and its obvious abundance of quotes from Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull and many more, Groovy Bob sets itself up to be a swingeing (Brit for 'whopping, capital') can't-put-it-down read. Unfortunately, Groovy Bob as executed is less a gripping, readable biography than a virtual art installation of thousands of verbal snapshots tacked to the wall, grouped more or less by general chronology - many of them entertaining in their own right, but collectively, an aggregation in which the reader is left to sink or swim.

Prefaced by both a prologue by Mick Jagger, and an introduction by author Harriet Vyner, Groovy Bob's 317 pages are divided into 10 chronologically-grouped chapters following art dealer Fraser's life from 1937 to his death in 1986, focusing mostly on his stunning successes in the mid-60's. Vyner's authorial voice opens each chapter with tantalizing hints as to the material therein ("He was not alone in expecting a lot from Eton...[But] Both [Fraser and his father] were to be disappointed.") -- then disappears, and what follows is a copious flow of quotes and anecdotes compiled from Vyner's interviews with the artists, musicians, school chums, friends and family with whom Fraser associated, as well as excerpts from family letters, relevant newspaper articles, and books.

And therein lies the rub. With a rough average of five quotes per page the book can be estimated to contain nearly 1,500 of what are, effectively, sound-bites. After a few chapters, despite the reader's best intentions (and attentions), the stream of anecdotes becomes relentless. Although different fonts and boldface type serve to differentiate the speaker from his or her words, and from interspersed material such as letter and book excerpts, one is very much left to muddle through on one's own in assembling a coherent picture of Fraser and what made him worthy of biography, and in creating for oneself a thread of narrative that links each anecdote with the next. The letter excerpts are undated; the speakers are not identified beyond their names, and obscure individuals such as "Colonel Peddie" may baffle and bemuse the reader until incidentally identified later in the text. Without the overall guiding voice of the author, ultimately, the individuality and numerousness of the anecdotes overwhelms.

Detail from Swingeing London '67 II
© 1999 Richard Hamilton

British art dealer Robert Fraser was born in 1937. His significant contribution to the art world was bringing modern art to the social revolution that was 60's London via his trend-setting London gallery, which presented cutting-edge modern artists during the mid-60's. At the tender age of 22, after a brief experience with modern art galleries in New York, he brought the power of his own carelessly compelling personality and the new idiom of modern art back across the Atlantic, opening his gallery at 69 Duke Street. He was terrible at business and superb at presentation, socializing, and introducing artists to musicians to actors, cross-pollinating a host of artistic projects. Fraser's life was a fable of celebrity, the rise and fall of an enigmatic, appetite-driven tastemaker whose facility in art dealing and gallery events furthered the careers of then-fledgelings Peter Blake, Bridget Riley, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine and Ed Ruscha, to name just a few. Along with the many artists, his friends included such notables of then and now as Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, and Dennis Hopper. Fraser's outer success rocketed along on inner disarray -- financial, sexual, and drug-oriented -- and his successful 60's, a time of jangly glee, tumbled away into a withdrawal to India in the 70's. When he returned, London had changed; he opened another gallery, but times and tastes no longer marched to the beat of his personal drum. Robert Fraser died in relative obscurity in 1986, of complications resulting from AIDS.

Such material sets itself up for a potentially strong narrative. And author Harriet Vyner was in an excellent position to write a thorough and compelling work, both as someone who knew Fraser personally for 16 years, and as someone able to organize the cooperation of the numerous popular figures, artists and acquaintances. However, the choice of delivering material solely via an aggregation of quotes and references ends up speaking less of Fraser's direct and vital involvement with art in 60's London -- its genesis, its effect, and what made it exciting -- and more disjointedly of his numerous adventures with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll legends. Ironically, Vyner's three-page introduction does more to orient the reader to the importance of his art dealing than the 300+ pages that form the bulk of the book.

Physically, Groovy Bob is a book meant to last, printed on substantial paper and well-bound in hardcover. A variety of typefaces serif and non-serif work to create context, to separate speaker from speech, and to indicate excerpts from letters and newspapers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't; the use of boldface type for letter newspaper excerpts is, for some reason, distracting, and the lines in general are set a nudge too far apart for easy reading. A vivid magenta cover provides an eye-popping starkness that smacks (appropriately) of the 60's, the photo of Robert Fraser by Hans Hammarskiold, in Savile Row suit and groovy scarf, starkly outlined against it. The black-and-white photos are a curious selection of Fraser, gallery installations, and group shots of Fraser with his companions. They do much to break up the relentless text but seem of only passing interest. The back cover features a color reproduction of Richard Hamilton's Swingeing London, with Fraser handcuffed to Mick Jagger in the infamous 1967 drug bust.

Groovy Bob's superabundance of quotes would have been helped out with some practical tools: an appendix of a list of his shows, in chronological order; an appendix of mini-biographies of the numerous speakers in the book; a real analysis of what made his offerings vital and important; and samples in the book of the works of the many artists he promoted, to eliminate the need to refer to other works for an overview. (To its credit, the book does have a thorough index of speakers and source materials.) As well, Groovy Bob gives the impression of working a bit too hard to capitalize on its celebrity connections. Paul McCartney is quoted on the cover; a page from Mick Jagger precedes even the author's introduction; the photos and stories are weighted toward the pop music scene. It seems, in part, that Robert Fraser falls into the wind shadow of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. His personal story seems to be sacrificed to the pulling power of the celebrity quotes -- as if he were not enough of a compelling figure in his own right, which he is.

Robert in India, 1970
© 1999 Harriet Vyner

This book is more conversational than educational, and the readers likely to enjoy it are those with an interest in the 60's and its artistic and musical figures, those for whom the main appeal is Fraser's adventures with the Beatles and the Stones and who don't mind a ramble through a garden of various quotes. If you're not looking for something too serious, Groovy Bob is a good spot of fun, laced with personal recollections of life in the 60's from Mick Jagger and other legendary figures as recounted by their own lips. The secret origins of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover are here, as well as the genesis of the White Album. There is a wistful quality in some of the accounts; the golden era of sex, drugs, and rock & roll as an ultimately empty wish. Not all, but many, of the individual anecdotes are interesting, and they do lend spice to the story. However, as the entire story, they are hard to assimilate. Art lovers, artists and art dealers seeking solid information will find the most value in Vyner's introduction, and perhaps in select quotations from the artists Fraser promoted.

Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser is a bit different from what one might hope for on seeing the promising jacket and promotional copy. If you're willing to wade through the quotes, it can be a magical mystery tour through flickers and slivers of Fraser's days as recounted by friends both famous and obscure. Fraser's rise and fall, his trend-setting art wheeling and dealing in "the free-floating spirit" of 60's London, his withdrawal to India, and his forgotten end could have been as riveting as any movie. Unfortunately, only the shadow of his story dances through the pages of this book; one cannot see the forest for the aggregation of trees. Immortalized as handcuffed to Mick Jagger during a drug bust in Richard Hamilton's Swingeing London (reproduced as the back cover, and within the book), Robert Fraser suffers a similar fate, posthumously, in Groovy Bob -- this time handcuffed to what appears to be celebrity selling power. Art and art dealership seem pushed to the periphery. As fun fare, Groovy Bob is decent; as serious biography, the biographical information can be difficult ore to mine.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be ordered through this site's Barnes and Noble link.

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