Artist blos­somed in the age of psychedelia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In the late 1960s, teenage bed­rooms across Aus­tralia bloomed with posters and none was more daz­zling and con­gested than Martin Sharp’s or­ange and black im­age of Bob Dy­lan. In a sin­gle decade Sharp had fine-tuned an art form that dis­tilled dis­cov­ery and re­bel­lion into a steady stream of psy­che­delic record al­bum cov­ers, posters, and mag­a­zine and book cov­ers us­ing flu­o­res­cent colours and re­flec­tive metal­lic pa­per — no­tably al­bum cov­ers for Cream and posters of Dono­van and Jimi Hen­drix.

Low­ell Tar­ling’s Sharp is an odd bi­og­ra­phy, the first of a two-vol­ume set. In­deed it’s not even quite a bi­og­ra­phy but rather a string of con­certi­naed rem­i­nis­cences of the artist and ac­tivist drawn from Tar­ling’s in­ter­views with Sharp, who died in 2013, and his clos­est friends.

It is nonethe­less a dili­gently re­searched and highly sat­is­fy­ing roll call of the main play­ers here, in Lon­don, and on the US west coast who dom­i­nated the cul­tural scene in the 1960s and 70s. Tar­ling il­lu­mi­nates the ex­tra­or­di­nary cross-pol­li­na­tion among the the­atri­cal, lit­er­ary, mu­si­cal, art, film and ad­ver­tis­ing worlds in these decades.

Sharp was born in Syd­ney in 1942, the day of the first Ja­panese air strike on Pa­pua and New Guinea. One side of his fam­ily were wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ists who sup­plied a quar­ter of the steel used to build the Har­bour Bridge. The other side pro­duced a bevy of re­spected sur­geons and med­i­cal spe­cial­ists.

Martin’s ear­li­est years were spent at his grand­par­ents’ house in the east­ern sub­urb of Belle­vue Hill. His at­ten­dance at Cran­brook School (a grand­fa­ther had been one of its founders) would be re­called with both af­fec­tion and ret­i­cence. The at­mos­phere was one of rou­tine bru­tal­ity: “That’s the sys­tem of those schools, train­ing you to do the same in busi­ness when you get out.”

Sharp’s mother, Jo, was de­voted to her only son and quick to en­cour­age his early ex­per­i­ments with draw­ing and paint­ing. Sharp’s ex­po­sure to car­toons and comics as a young­ster (Boof­head, Gin­ger Meggs, Su­per­man and Mickey Mouse) would play a part in his later ca­reer as an il­lus­tra­tor, psy­che­delic poster and record cover de­signer. The class­room of his art teacher Justin O’Brien was a refuge from the bully boys.

Sharp was by all ac­counts a shy and unas­sum­ing boy, but bold enough to lam­poon the school when given the op­por­tu­nity. Noth­ing es­caped his at­ten­tion or his pen, and con­certs at the Syd­ney Sta­dium in Rush­cut­ters Bay and the surf cul­ture on the north­ern beaches claimed him for some time.

Rock ’n’ roll and pop rolled up on his shore, be­gin­ning with John­nie Ray, Johnny O’Keefe, the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones. The last would shake ev­ery­one’s foun­da­tions. Tar­ling writes this of Aus­tralian mind­set in the 60s: “True blue Aussies … reck­oned you wouldn’t wanna be a com­mie, spag, reffo, Kike, poof, Pom, wog, Ruski, derro, tee­to­taller … Abo or a woman.” That was about to be chal­lenged.

Oz mag­a­zine, the brain­child of Richard Neville, whom Tar­ling in­ter­viewed, Richard Walsh and Sharp, was some­thing of a prank in­tended to bait the fe­ro­ciously rigid cen­sor­ship laws that had come un­der fire with the pub­li­ca­tion in 1960 of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover. They lam­pooned the judges in Oz even as the case was be­ing heard. The young men nar­rowly avoided jail. And the re­sult? The cir­cu­la­tion of the next is­sue blew out to 40,000 copies.

Next stop: Lon­don, where Sharp and as­sorted friends were swept up in the colour and move­ment of Kings Road. He found a stu­dio there in The Pheas­antry, a colour­ful nest orig­i­nally built in 1670 for Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn. Sharp wel­comed friends and blow-ins from all cor­ners. Ger­maine Greer moved into the flat down­stairs to work on The Fe­male Eunuch, while one Sharp’s flat­mates was Eric Clap­ton — the only one who could stump up his share of the rent. Clap­ton who made an il­lu­mi­nat­ing ob­ser­va­tion about Sharp in his 2007 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: “Martin was a very gen­tle man, with an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for life and new ex­pe­ri­ences. At the same time he was very con­sid­er­ate and sen­si­tive to oth­ers.”

Martin Sharp, left, with Tiny Tim in 1982

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