Sharp in his studio. All photos: Georgia Mason-Cox

First published in Sydneysider magazine, November 2009.

The former art director of Oz magazine explores his obsessions in a new exhibition, writes Georgia Mason-Cox.

When Martin Sharp, counter-culture icon and former scourge of the establishment, was honoured with an Order of Australia in 2005 for services to the pop art movement he accepted the award hesitantly.

“I think artists taking awards is a bit risky because it might influence your work, but  the postie who delivered the letter said I had to accept it and so I took his advice,” the 67-year-old says with a chuckle.

Sharp’s work is sure to be back in the spotlight this year with an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney running until April. His first solo show since 2006, it was instigated by Ace Bourke, a long-time friend of Sharp’s whose emotional reunion with a lion named Christian was a recent YouTube sensation. Bourke, who describes his friend as “enigmatic, quite brilliant, and very insightful,” insists he is the exhibition’s ‘coordinator’ rather than its curator.

“Martin curates his own exhibitions, to be very blunt,” Bourke says.

“He is in the best position to tell the story through his work. I realised he doesn’t like being curated because only he knows what he wants to say and he’s so eloquent.”

The Museum of Sydney seems an appropriate venue for an artist whose work is so entwined with the cultural history of the HarbourCity.

“The Museum of Sydney is a very interesting place, site of the first Government House, but I’m not used to it at all,” Sharp says.

“I’m showing a great variety of work, old and new, but I’m still trying to gather things together and create a few more pieces. Christmas is coming so I might try to do something related to that, and also the anniversary of Tiny Tim’s death will be coming up soon so I might create some sort of tribute to Tiny.”

Singer and ukulele player Tiny Tim is a recurring motif in Sharp’s art and remains a driving force in his work. The artist’s Bellevue Hill home is filled with images of the performer, who had a surprise hit with Tiptoe Through The Tulips and was introduced to a wider audience with his appearances on the Laugh In show. His star burned brightly for a moment in the late ‘60s but was soon relegated to what Sharp calls “the outer suburbs of show business”.

“He was very special, one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met,” Sharp recalls.

“People were moved by him, but they got a bit embarrassed afterwards because he had an eccentric persona. I saw him in London in 1968 and was just amazed by his mastery of the whole language of popular song. I thought I’d love to work with him, but I didn’t think that would be possible because at that stage he was a big star.”

They did end up collaborating and in 1979 Sharp organised Tiny Tim’s non-stop singing world record attempt at LunaPark, an event documented in Sharp’s film Street of Dreams.

Sharp has had a long history with LunaPark. He received an invitation to redesign the amusement park’s famous face in 1973, while in London, and thought it would be a very interesting job “to paint the landscape of Sydney”. He became one of Luna Park’s resident artists for much of the ‘70s, an experience he describes as “enchanting”.

Luna Park Face, 2009.

It would also have a lasting impact on his life. Six months after Tiny Tim sang non-stop for two hours and fifteen minutes in a new world record, a fire in LunaPark’s Ghost Train claimed the lives of six children and one adult. The victims were John Godson, his two children and four WaverleyCollege students who went to the amusement park after attending church.

“The fire was a highly symbolic tragedy in a highly symbolic place,” says Sharp. “It was The Year of the Child, there was a train strike going on, Godson was the father of two of the boys, the children coming from Mass – all these things are very laden with meaning, which one is trying to express in various ways.”

Sharp led a public campaign to have the park reopened after the fire but his friend and fellow Park artist Peter Kingston believes the tragedy affected him deeply.

“After the fire things changed badly for him, things took on a different significance,” Kingston says. According to him, one of the “greatest things” Sharp ever did was to befriend Jenny Poidevin, who lost her husband and two sons in the blaze.

“Martin came to her rescue and supported her when she was still so raw after what had happened. He has a wonderful quality of immense kindness.”

Sharp says he gets the feeling that these days he’s not all that welcome at LunaPark, which might have something to do with his public statements that the fire was an act of terrorism in an ongoing war over the site.

“Eventually the whole city becomes involved because nothing’s been done about [finding those responsible], but I think the truth’s more important than people getting put in jail for it,” he says.

Luna Park is prominent in many of Sharp’s works, including Oz?, the tapestry commissioned for the State Library in Macquarie Street. He believes it brings together many important elements, including Bernard O’Dowd’s poem Australia, a work Sharp regards as highly significant. Assembling and appropriating images and words to create new meanings is a characteristic feature of his art.

“Some of my works are completely planned, but I look back on the ones I was doing at school [Cranbrook] and I was painting very freely,” Sharp says.

“My teacher was Justin O’Brien, and he didn’t try to tell you what to do unless you didn’t know what you wanted to do.”

O’Brien introduced Sharp to the work of Van Gogh, the painter who would become his biggest artistic influence. Van Gogh’s dream of a utopian artist’s settlement was Sharp’s inspiration for the Yellow House, an art collective he co-founded in Kings Cross in 1970 after returning from London. A 24 hour ‘happening’ where each room in the Macleay St terrace was an artwork in itself, the Yellow House has become a celebrated piece of Sydney’s artistic history. But it was in London, at the height of the swinging ‘60s, that Sharp produced some of his most recognisable images.

“The one that’s become notable is the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears, which I thought was okay, but I’d say that’s my most well known work, so I’m not ungrateful for it at all,” Sharp says.

Also prominent is Mr Tambourine Man, a poster of Bob Dylan printed on reflective gold foil paper, the Legalise Cannabis poster advertising a 1967 rally, and the sleeve of Cream’s third album Wheels of Fire, which won Sharp the New York Art Directors Prize for Best Album Design in 1969. His artwork encapsulated the era, so much so that in 2007 his painting Explosion:(Jimi Hendrix) made the front page of the New York Times in relation to a major exhibition of psychedelic art at the WhitneyMuseum.

A new audience will be introduced to Sharp’s life and work when a film about the London underground scene is released early next year. Hippie Hippie Shake, starring Sienna Miller and Cillian Murphy, is the controversial adaption of Richard Neville’s 1995 book of the same name. It tells the story of Oz, the groundbreaking magazine launched in Sydney in 1963 by Sharp, Neville and Richard Walsh, and resurrected in London in 1967. Sharp was its art director, producing collages, paintings and satirical cartoons that combined elements of social commentary, high art and pop culture.

The notoriety of Oz is partly due to the charges of obscenity twice levelled against the magazine’s three publishers. Neville, Sharp and Walsh were convicted of printing an obscene publication, landing jail terms in 1964 which were dropped following public outrage. Two items in particular caused the controversy. One was a photo depicting Neville and others pretending to urinate into a sculpture, and the other was a poem by Sharp, The Word Flashed Around The Arms, which parodied the attitude of young Australian males who gatecrashed parties.

“Young people were gaining self-expression,” Sharp recalls of that time.

“We were charged with obscenity, which was just an excuse for having a go at us.”

Though Sharp looks back fondly on his experience with Oz, he is scathing about his depiction in the movie.

“I hope it never comes out. Someone was auditioning to play me, and they wanted to meet me, and I said ‘just give me a look at that script you’ve got’– I’ve got a good case for libel right there. I complained, and they did another script, but it was just their fantasy. There was no checking with me, it was just based very loosely on Richard’s book, which had its inaccuracies already. My character was involved in 55 scenes, none of which happened.”

Despite his misgivings, the movie will no doubt draw attention to Sharp’s extraordinary contribution to Australian culture, which Ace Bourke believes should have been honoured with a major retrospective by now.

“I don’t think he has the reputation he deserves,” says Bourke.

“What I like about Martin is that he’s quite an old fashioned artist in a lot of ways. He doesn’t really like to sell work, he doesn’t really like to finish work, all these themes and works are ongoing. I don’t think he’s played the art game, and it’s become such a corporate, professional game these days. He’s done it his way, in a very individual way.”

Harbour Bridge from Luna Park Ferris Wheel.