You could be forgiven for thinking of Martin Sharp at 71 as an elderly artist whose work more than likely graces the hallowed walls of institutions such as The Australian National Gallery or the offices of BHP. You could also be forgiven for imagining this silver haired gentleman’s artwork depicts Heidelberg School-style Australian landscapes or maybe even still life Images a la Margaret Olley.
But age beguiles us and the twinkle in Martin Sharp’s eyes gives him away, for here is a man who drove a revolution in psychedelic pop art, freedom of speech, established the famous ‘Yellow House’ artist enclave in Sydney’s Kings Cross and who worked with and created posters and album covers for the likes of Cream, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Tiny Tim, Luna Park and Nimrod Theatre.
Martin Sharp was not just an artist, he was a filmmaker, designer and cartoonist and his iconic, psychedelic pop art embodied the bohemian freedom of the 1960s and 70s’ Cultural Revolution.
In 1963 he caused controversy via his artistic involvement in the anti-establishment underground publication ‘Oz’ and was prosecuted for obscenity (and later acquitted) along with co-founders Richard Neville and Richard Walsh, for publishing a front cover depicting Neville and two friends urinating into a fountain at the new P&O office in Sydney.
Not to be deterred however, Martin moved to London where in 1967 he relaunched ‘Oz’ as an expression of artistic and political freedom and then began working closely with Eric Clapton, co-writing the lyrics to Cream’s classic ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ and designing the famous psychedelic collage cover for the band’s ‘Disraeli Gears’ album as well as the ‘Wheels of Fire’ album.
Of ‘Explosion’, a poster he created for Jimi Hendrix, Martin commented “He epitomised the era, and I think it is quite a good picture of him”
On his return to Sydney in 1970, frustrated by the traditional gallery scene and inspired by Vincent Van Gough’s own unrealised dream of creating a centre for artists, Martin established the ‘Yellow House’ in Macleay St, Kings Cross. The building itself became a piece of living art with every wall, floor and ceiling becoming part of the gallery. As well as being a mecca to pop art the Yellow House became a multi-media performance art space and possibly was Australia’s first 24 /7 ‘happening’.
“We had people painting walls, but also performing in cabarets and plays, helping show films and things… You'd wake up in the morning and find a room had been transformed overnight. Martin and people would keep working through the night. So the whole house was an installation artwork. ”Filmmaker – Albie Thomas
Sharp was also heavily involved in the campaign to keep Luna Park open to the public and his redesign in 1979, using a mix of psychedelic colours and vaudeville-style icons, established him as one of Australia’s leading pop artists.
Martin Sharp has been described as an iconoclast, a wilful and obstinate dreamer, a former enthusiast of LSD and nicotine and “someone who really transcended categories but kept the public at the forefront of what he did” Wayne Tuncliffe, AGNSW
Sharp’s imagery is etched in our memories to this day – posters of Mo for the Nimrod Theatre, the unmistakable rendering of the word “Eternity’ in numerous paintings and prints and his Archibald finalist portrait of Aboriginal Actor David Gulpilil as recently as 2012.
It is with great fondness that we remember this inspiring man who worked his artistic magic throughout an era of controversy and social change. If we could only sit on his lap now and say ‘Tell me about the old days grandpa” we would enjoy the most exciting bedtime story of our lives.
Vale Martin Sharp (1942 – 2013)