Crossroads of Art Worlds
Notes on Galleries in the Groove – Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s
"If you meet someone on the crossroads, shake his hands on the mountain peak; if you meet someone on the mountain peak, shake his hands on the crossroads." – Wu Deng Hui Yuan
Imagine three innovative, visionary, however, radical gallerists in one room; Linda Goode Bryant, Anny de Decker, and the late Robert Fraser - how would they break the ice? Although Fraser would have been the same age as de Decker, their life trajectories never crossed. Fraser, the youngest son of an affluent London family, who studied at Eton and served in the King’s African Rifles in Uganda, opened his gallery in London in 1962 after five thriftless years in New York as an art enthusiast and collector. De Decker majored in art history at the Catholic University of Leuven and went on to open Wide White Space in Antwerp with her husband, artist Bernd Lohaus in 1966. In the same year, a Jim Dine exhibition at Robert Fraser Gallery was considered to be an outrageous violation of the 1838 Vagrancy Act and was forced to close; several months later the police arrested Fraser during a drug raid. As de Decker visited New York City and met with Christo in 1969, Fraser closed his gallery which was bogged in mismanagement and debts before taking off for India.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Goode Bryant was a college student and a young single mother in Ohio. She moved to New York City in 1972 for a masters programme at City College. After an internship at the Metropolitan Museum, six months as a Rockefeller Fellow and a brief period working in the Studio Museum of Harlem, Goode Bryant borrowed $1000 and opened Just Above Midtown (JAM) in 1974.[i] At this point, de Decker was already fed up with the repetitive exhibitions of the same artists and works and Wide White Space lasted two more years before closing in 1976. Coincidentally, the final years of JAM overlapped with the brief resurrection - or terminal lucidity - of Robert Fraser Gallery from 1983 to 1985. JAM closed in 1986, the same year that Fraser died of AIDS.
Despite the different racial, cultural, and aesthetic backgrounds of the three gallerists, they shared a mutual interest in unconventional art forms deemed unacceptable at the time for museums and the art market. Simultaneously, they realised the potential of art galleries beyond commercial gains. A gallery can be a place of inclusiveness, debate, innovation, education and support to the artists and in general, a place for their own voice. Led by a passion to make a difference in the art world, Fraser moved back to London from New York, de Decker left her job as a researcher of 16-17th century Flemish art, and when David Hammons told Goode Bryant that "[he doesn’t] show in white galleries", she decided to start JAM.[ii]
We learn of so many artists' stories beginning with their work being appreciated by an art dealer, followed by several successful and well-sold exhibitions, growing recognition by a larger audience and, ultimately, institutional acquisition. However, this pattern in ‘making an artist’ didn’t necessarily apply to the three galleries discussed here. Despite playing a seminal role in promoting artists who later became widely recognised and commercially successful, many of them established themselves through chaotic arguments, hard decisions and experimental risk-taking, as opposed to a straightforward artist-gallerist relationship.
De Decker refused to identify as a professional; this was one of the most important features of Wide White Space, reframing her gallery as a space for adventure rather than business.[iii] De Decker and Lohaus introduced many artists to the Antwerp art scene through their existing personal connections from Düsseldorf, but their activities and events also attracted collectors from around the globe. The gallery as a meeting point and experimental ground certainly offered new possibilities for emerging artists to play around with their ideas. But de Decker also had a particular way to select artists, juxtaposing the work of young artists' against the likes of Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke, Lucio Fontana and Joseph Beuys, to determine whether the new pieces ‘fell off the wall’.[iv] This system of judgement captured the zeitgeist of White Wide Space in the Euro-American context, a time when Pop Art, Capitalist Realism, Spatialism and Conceptual Art came and went, and the taste and fashion of art changed frequently.
In London, Robert Fraser Gallery was known for being the playground of Pop Art and pop culture in the UK. Both artists and celebrities regularly assembled in the gallery and Fraser’s apartment, while he famously did the art direction for the Beatles' album cover ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club’, and Tara Browne, heiress of Guinness, drove an AC Cobra out his gallery window. However, as a serious gallerist and art dealer, Fraser also had an acute eye for emerging talent. According to British artist Brian Clarke, when the exhibition proposal of Gilbert & George was rejected by every other gallery, only Fraser gave them a cautious “yeees”.[v] Even in the final years, the resurrected Robert Fraser Gallery still inventively showed artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. However, behind all the mirages and legends surrounding the gallery, there were also frequent complaints of late payments, missing artworks, lack of attention and concentration, largely due to Fraser's drug and alcohol addiction.[vi]
The multifaceted life of Robert Fraser is often too dazzling to grasp when simply viewing the exhibitions in his gallery or going through archival material. It was really his curatorial concepts that shaped the scene of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and left a profound influence on the exhibition-making and curation of contemporary art in the UK. As the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York in the post-war era, artists and art dealers flocked to the New World to take their chance. Fraser, however, was doing the opposite, introducing avant-garde and Pop Art artists from the United States and Europe to London. While his legendary stories with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones remained phenomenal, his hedonistic lifestyle and careless management style eventually led to the closure of the gallery.
As a contemporary of Fraser, de Decker was acutely aware of the critical attitudes towards the United States, exacerbated by the intervention in the Vietnam War,[vii] which indirectly also accounted for the fast fade out of Pop Art across Europe. De Decker, always versatile, managed to adapt and started using a different lingo with an emphasis on “talk about power, manipulation, hijacking and frustration.”[viii] Being adaptable led to several fruitful years in the 1970s for de Decker, but with Fraser, such reflective examination and adjustments didn’t seem to occur. The surviving installation views of Robert Fraser Gallery show that works were often arranged in a rather traditional fashion - even the Jim Dine exhibition closed down by the police looked like a regular show, albeit containing explicit content. While Wide White Space actively intervened with the art works and performances, Robert Fraser Gallery was more of a fixed location for works to be presented. One could argue that, in a way, the very radicality of the gallery resided within its own conservative nature.
Compared to the internationalism of Wide White Space and Robert Fraser Gallery, JAM was a space exclusively dedicated to Black artists and Black culture. It acted beyond the commercial scope of an art gallery and produced exhibitions, programmes and publications on an institutional scale. The location of its events also famously expanded from the gallery space into the cityscape. According to Lorraine O’Grady, “JAM was a place as much as a world, a place where people ate together, discussed and argued, drank and smoked together, collaborated on work, slept together, pushed each other to go further, and partied ’til the cows came home.”[ix] For Goode Bryant, interaction in the gallery was “one big stew”, where JAM became an art piece itself.[x]
In 1982, JAM had big plans with executing a multidisciplinary exhibition titled “Afro-American Popular Culture: from the Saturday Night Stomp to the Sunday Morning Service”. The major project was supposed to include installations by artists such as David Hammons, Senga Nengudi; performances by Adrian Piper, Lorraine O’Grady, Bill T. Jones, and Kaylynn Sullivan; a series of oral history interviews with artists and Goode Bryant’s family; a three-day music event in venues across New York City; a survey of Black popular dance since the 1920s; a publication with essays and art works, as well as numerous events on Black humour, games, popular literature, graphic arts, beauty, cuisine, social clubs, entertainment and fashion. Unfortunately, this magnificent project, which could have altered the whole art world substantially, was never realised.
Today, we can only imagine the eclectic panorama through the remaining documentation from the gallery archive. This is arguably one of the most important references to understand JAM. We’re already familiar with the famous exhibitions and stories and its cultural and contextual importance, however, the unrealised project also offers insight into the ideas and ambitions at the core of JAM, something we are still working towards unearthing. It’s worth noting that while JAM attracted celebrities such as basketball stars and pop stars, the dynamic was very much distinct from the scene at Robert Fraser Gallery. With the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Art Movement, and art collectives such as AfriCOBRA, JAM not only tried to promote pop culture but rather the visibility and recognition of Black culture, a vision continued today but further problematised by globalisation and localisational contexts.
The current exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, Galleries in the Groove – Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s, examines the three galleries with remarkable archival materials. It explores the innovative way of exhibition-making and art dealing, the un-professionalism of the three galleries moulded on their unique style and practice, which in return deeply impacted the local and international artistic communities, even after the galleries closure. In the multiverse that is contemporary art, they each occupied a universe of their own, while gazing at each other over time and space.
'Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s' is on show at Whitechapel Gallery, London from 21 December 2021 to 21 August 2022. The exhibition is curated and organised by Head of Curatorial Studies and Archives, Dr. Nayia Yiakoumaki, Assistant Curator Ines Costa and Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow Zoe Diao. For more information on the show, click here.