POSH, IMPECCABLY DRESSED, drug-obsessed and privately gay, the charismatic and contradictory British art dealer Robert Fraser may be the most significant art-world figure you’ve never heard of. In 1962, when he was 24, he launched a groundbreaking gallery for contemporary art on London’s Duke Street, opening it with a controversial show of the “rude,” “earthy” and, to old-fashioned eyes, “vulgar” French artist Jean Dubuffet. Over the next few years, Fraser’s confident aesthetic vision and synergizing instincts launched careers and gave an international turbo-boost to Britain’s pop art movement, bringing rock ’n’ roll glamour to the gallery setting. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Larry Rivers and half a dozen other artists painted his portrait; the Sex Pistols’ spin on “My Way” was written in his honor (so said their manager Malcolm McLaren); and he helped orchestrate the most famous album cover of all time—the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—this while entertaining Swinging London’s art and music royalty at his gallery and at his Mayfair flats. Fraser’s gatherings were like an English version of Andy Warhol ’s Factory, with Marlon Brando popping in to electrify the groovy throng, Mick Jagger spilling champagne down his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull ’s dress or John Lennon and Yoko Ono releasing hundreds of balloons to celebrate an exhibition they called You Are Here. At the time, if here was where Robert Fraser was, there was no better place to be.
“He was the most extraordinary person I ever met,” says the artist Jim Dine, whom Fraser discovered early in his career. “He had a feeling for art and danger, and he was wonderful.”