Martin Sharp (1942-2013)

Artist, art director, cartoonist, poster-artist, songwriter, film-maker, collaborator, agitator. Through graphic work and paintings, Martin Sharp is recognised as Australia's foremost pop artist. In his own work and that of many collaborations, Sharp was committed to social and cultural change. He wanted to make the world a happier place.

From an intense scribbler he became a wonderful drawer, collagist and colourist who experimented with a range of media. His creative skill can be seen in the weaving of words and images to form active, almost animated spaces. He also championed iconic artists and Australian graphic history.

Martin Sharp AM was born in Sydney in 1942. His family included industrialists, doctors, politicians and art lovers. For most of his life he lived and worked in Wirian, a grand 1920s home in Bellevue Hill, which he inherited from his grandparents while in his 20s.

His mother, Jo Sharp, taught him the inventiveness of collage. His grandmother introduced him to Australian comics like ‘Boofhead’ drawn by Robert Bruce Clark in the 1930s to 1970s.

Sharp attended Sydney private boys’ school Cranbrook where his art teacher, Justin O’Brien, recognised his potential and encouraged him to study at the National Art School in East Sydney. There, he co-produced a satirical broadsheet, The Arty Wild Oat. Through that project he met Richard Walsh, editor of the University of Sydney’s campus newspaper Honi Soit, and Richard Neville, who edited the University of NSW’s Tharunka.

The three of them soon set up a studio in a former horse stable in The Rocks where they created OZ magazine. It turned undergraduate humour into colourful, biting satire that critiqued conservative society. Sharp’s humorous, often lewd graphic style, was combined with an insistence that the best quality paper was used. Through 41 issues from 1963 to 1969, the journal covered the Vietnam War, political corruption, gay rights, abortion, drugs, Utzon’s Sydney Opera House and exposed Sydney’s underworld.

After 26 issues, Sharp and Neville set off on the hippie-trail through south-east Asia heading toward swinging London. Once there they decided London could do with its own version of OZ magazine. It quickly became a counterculture magazine of artistic and political renown. By issue No.3 Martin Sharp’s art direction went psychedelic, selling up to 100,000 copies. OZ London became a graphic design landmark, lasting 48 issues from 1967 to 1973. It was also the subject of the longest obscenity trial in British history.

Inspired by Sharp’s poster designs and their popularity, Peter Ledeboer, the OZ magazine studio manager, set up Big O publishing, growing it into the prestige poster company of the day. With Big O, Sharp was able to experiment with fluoro inks, foil papers and translucent plastics.

In London, Sharp lived mostly at The Pheasantry, a decaying Georgian house in Chelsea. It was a communal home to writers, musicians, actors and occasional dubious characters. Among the Australians there was Germaine Greer, writing The Female Eunuch. Another Pheasantry flatmate arranged for Sharp to produce set designs for Performance, a controversial film starring Mick Jagger and James Fox.

Eric Clapton of Cream was also a flatmate and friend. Sharp co-wrote one of the super-group’s best known songs, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, and went on to design classic psychedelic covers for the band’s Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire albums.

Sharp was part of the London in-crowd. He was invited to exhibitions, went to clubs where new bands like Pink Floyd performed, and experimented with LSD. All the time he worked, drawing on these experiences to feed his art, design and spiritual philosophy.

Through iconic posters of Donovan, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, as well as for Oz magazine and his work for Cream, Martin Sharp became a hippie household name. The Observer magazine described him as the “king of kinky-poster makers.”

Toward the end of his three years in London, Sharp designed Richard Neville’s bestselling book, Playpower and published collections of his own many drawings and collages.

Sharp returned to Sydney in 1969. Inspired by Van Gogh’s dream to create an artist’s commune, he initiated and helped set up The Yellow House in Potts Point. With the approval of the building’s owners, a former gallery building was painted yellow and its rooms converted into surrealist experiential spaces. Artists and others lived, loved, made art and organized performances of all kinds, day and night. This creative powerhouse eventually dissolved in 1972.

Only occasional venturing out of Australia, from the mid-1970s, Wirian was home and studio for Sharp, with its many rooms always full of art, memorabilia, friends and unfinished projects. There he painted, and also designed posters for Nimrod Theatre, Paris Theatre, Circus Oz, Sydney and Adelaide Festivals and more. Works reflected influences of art nouveau, art deco, expressionism, Australiana (Ginger Meggs, Boofhead, Mo, Krazy Kat), Van Gogh, Hokusai, and also ‘Eternity’, the chalked copperplate word made famous by Sydney’s Arthur Stace.

For over two decades he also championed and promoted New York ukulele player and singer Tiny Tim. He was producer of posters, records and a feature-length film Street Of Dreams.

Sharp was commissioned to revitalise Luna Park’s clown-face entrance and also many of its rides in 1973. Always the collaborator, over two years Sharp and a team of artist friends transformed the fun park, and along the way gained a great respect for the work of original resident artist Arthur Barton. Through the project Sharp built on his already considerable collection of fairground art and toys, which have since been exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW.

In 1979 a Luna Park Ghost Train fire turned Sharp into an obsessive campaigner, calling to account those he considered negligent for several deaths. Then in 1980 there were business manoeuvres to build apartments on the site. Sharp and his collaborators organised ‘Friends of Luna Park’ in a protest that included a walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge and culminated in a free concert by Mental As Anything. Luna Park was eventually protected by The National Trust of Australia.

From the 1980s into the 2000s Sharp continued to produce work for a variety of Australian and overseas artists, including Jeannie Lewis, Dog Trumpet, Regular Records compilations, The Volares, Mic Conway, The Backsliders and Cold Chisel.

In 1998, he was the only Australian to be included in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s major international poster exhibition, The Power of the Poster.

Although his health was declining, Sharp’s concerns for Aboriginal justice and socially dispossessed became more passionate. Some exhibitions were planned and he also considered the future of Wirian. Martin Sharp passed away at home in December 2013.

Not having married or having children, he specified in his will that Wirian become a hub for art education, and that it foster awareness of his work, including Tiny Tim and Luna Park. Presently a Charitable Trust is being established which will include two artist's residencies open to artists both national and international, working in all of the art mediums Sharp worked in.

In 2005 Sharp received an Order of Australia (AM) in recognition of service to the arts as a painter and graphic designer, particularly contributing to the POP art movement in Australia and providing support to emerging young artists. In 2012 he received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Visual Arts from the University of Sydney and in 2013 he received a Fellowship from the National Art School.

—Graham Rendoth, AGDA Hall of Fame Committee, November 2017

Images © Martin Sharp Estate

Content for this article came from various sources, including Joyce Morgan’s authorized biography, ‘Martin Sharp – his life and times’, Michael Organ, obituaries and interviews.

Martin Sharp’s fine art did not fall directly within the concerns of the AGDA Hall of Fame award.