Martin Sharp’s exuberantly colourful posters and album covers encapsulated the spirit of the Swinging Sixties.
Although he became one of Australia’s best-loved artists in later years, he remained an iconoclast, uninterested in material wealth or the opinions of the mainstream art world. Art was Sharp’s life, and his enduring passion. Even when receiving weekly blood transfusions at a Sydney clinic before his death from emphysema, he was never without a sketchbook. His talents were diverse, encompassing film-making, songwriting and set design as well as cartoons and graphic art.
Idiosyncratic, irascible and obsessive, Sharp never married. However, he enjoyed lifelong friendships with the likes of Richard Neville and Richard Walsh, with whom he founded the satirical magazine, Oz, in 1963. The trio stood trial on obscenity charges; twice they were convicted and given prison sentences before being acquitted on appeal. It was Sharp’s work in London, designing posters for Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Donovan, and distinctive album covers, which cemented him as one of the defining artists of the Sixties counterculture.
Born in 1942, he grew up in well-to-do Bellevue Hill in Sydney. He was encouraged along the artistic path by his mother, Joan, a painter, and went to what became Australia’s National Art School. Oz was a “magazine of dissent”, which – as Neville wrote – aimed to “shake Sydney from its pompous Fifties torpor”. Robert Hughes, the future art critic and art historian, was an early contributor. Sharp produced cartoons, illustrations and striking covers, including one featuring a topless Mona Lisa.
The first issue, which carried a centre-spread on the history of the chastity belt, sold 6,000 copies in half a day. Subsequent editions sparked a series of obscenity charges. A photograph of Neville and two friends pretending to urinate on a public sculpture led to Sharp, Neville and Walsh being arraigned in 1964 before a Sydney magistrate, who warned them not to turn his court into “a circus”. Sharp caricatured him in Oz as a vicious clown.
The following year, a Sydney gallery staged Sharp’s first major show of pop art, “Art for Mart’s Sake”. It was a sell-out, and a critical success. In 1966, he and Neville set off for London, travelling overland through Asia. A British edition of Oz proved equally controversial.
Sharp lived in the Kings Road, sharing his digs with, among others, Germaine Greer and Eric Clapton. The pair had met in a nightclub, where Sharp showed him a poem he had just written; Clapton turned it into the lyrics of Cream’s classic song “Tales of Brave Ulysses”. Sharp also designed covers for the band’s Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire albums.
In 1970 he returned to Sydney and set up an artists’ collective, the Yellow House, inspired by the Van Gogh painting. He designed posters for the Sydney Opera House and Circus Oz, as well as theatre costumes and sets. He was artistic adviser on the Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock. In later decades his output became more sporadic. He would sometimes spend years on a painting, and he became fixated with certain themes and subjects, including the American singer Tiny Tim.
His friend and fellow artist, George Gittoes, called him “a sparkling spirit, often confused and disappointed by the ways of this world”. He was “a stranger in a strange land”, Gittoes wrote. “He never really fitted here, but he’s left a wonderful trail of stardust.”
Martin Sharp, artist: born Sydney 21 January 1942; died 1 December 2013.