Remembering the artist Martin Sharp – in collage

Garry Shead’s portrait of Martin Sharp shows the artist as he lived, orchestrating a magic theatre of people and objects. Felicity Jenkins/EPA

The tributes have been flowing in from friends and art critics for Martin Sharp, who died this week aged 71.

The common thread linking all the tributes, all the memories, is that the artist was never alone.

Sharp was instrumental in the creation of Oz magazine, the satirical magazine published in Sydney and London between 1963 and 1973; the Sydney gallery and artists’ space the Yellow House; the visual aesthetic of 1960s London; and much more.

He was, primarily, a collage artist – and a collaborator. Both his work and his life can be imagined as a kind of glorious living collage – of people, objects and art.

With that in mind, I’d like to present my collage of memories of Martin Sharp.

London – and Oz magazine

The cover of Oz magazine #12. AAP Image/Facebook

In Oz magazine, Martin Sharp and the two Richards – Walsh and Neville – turned undergraduate humour into colourful biting satire that critiqued the folly of their elders. Sharp’s distinctive graphic style was combined with an insistence that the publishers use the best quality art paper.

It is impossible to think of 1960s London in music, art and performance without seeing it as drawn by Sharp. He was responsible for Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan’s iconic record covers, creations embedded in the LSD and pot-fuelled days of London.

Sydney – and the Yellow House

Martin Sharp at the Yellow House: the gathering of friends - Albie Thoms, Peter Kingston, Bruce Goold, Richard Liney, Tim Lewis, George Gittoes, Nell Campbell (aka Little Nell) - photographed by Jon Lewis and Greg Weight.

Artwork by Martin Sharp helped define the psychedelic look of pop culture in London in the 1960s. AAP Image/Facebook

Sharp used friends and associates to create a space that still echoes through the years as an important powerhouses of creative energy.

Martin Sharp and Tiny Tim: Sharp’s fascination with the vaudeville singer was a transcendental moment that lasted a lifetime.

Martin Sharp and the ghost of Arthur Stace, the reformed alcoholic who spread the gospel by writing the word “Eternity” on Sydney pavements in chalk. Together they made enough copperplate Eternitys to fill a Sydney starry sky.

Then the mood changes.

Sharp and Luna Park: first for fun, when he created one of the version’s of the clown-face that formed the park’s entrance, and then for fight as he became an obsessive campaigner to call to account those whose negligence caused the death of a father and six children in the Ghost Train fire of 1979.

Sharp in his later years: passionate about the injustice meted out to Aboriginal people as he looked increasingly to the spiritual truths of Christianity, the sacrifice on the cross, and compassion for all those dispossessed.

SydneySights. Wikimedia Commons

A grand collaboration

Sharp was always at his most effective when he was a part of a grand collaboration, whether it was the intelligent anarchy of Oz, in both Sydney and London, his collaborations with musicians, or the grand vision of the Yellow House. Sharp was no solitary genius; he was at his best when with others of like mind.

Martin Sharp at a Sydney gallery in 2010. AAP Image/Facebook

For many years his home was his grandmother’s former home, Wirian, one of those grand 1920s mansions in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill. It was filled to excess with memories, memorabilia and friends.

Sharp collected people almost in the same way as he collected art, surrounding himself with them, watching as they interacted with each other – the famous, the colourful, the offbeat, the eccentric, the intensely spiritual.

His mother, Jo Sharp, was his first art teacher as she taught him how to make collage, cutting up images to place them in different contexts, relishing both a sense of the absurd and the beauty that came with unusual conjunctions.

His grandmother, who had a large collection of black and white graphic art, introduced him to Boofhead comics.

Van Gogh

Sharp’s art teacher at Cranbrook, Justin O'Brien, gave him a book on Van Gogh as an art prize. In his doctor father’s surgery there was reproduction of Van Gogh’s On the road to Tarascon, a painting destroyed in the second world war. The absence of its real presence made the many reproductions more poignant.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait on the road to Tarascon (1888). Wikipaintings

This is the image that guided Sharp, the one he reworked with variations throughout his life. It is telling that the name he gave the constant reworkings of this work was Courage, My Friend.

Van Gogh was always on his mind.

It was in London, while he was living in the Peasantry with Eric Clapton, filmmaker Philippe Mora and other artists and musicians, that he read Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo.

While acid freed his mind to make the images that are forever associated with the 1960s, the creative chaos of communal life acted as both a support and a stimulus.

When Sharp returned to Sydney it was not surprising he had something similar in mind.

At the Yellow House

Many people claim credit for creating the Yellow House, and in a perverse way they are all right. But without Sharp none of them could have created this house where artists could live and work together.

The Yellow House today. Sydney Heritage

It was Sharp who was able to persuade the owners of the old Terry Clune Galleries in Potts Point to let him have the last exhibition before it closed.

Then, as the building was doomed to be demolished for a high-rise apartment development, there was no harm in letting him and a few friends live there and make art.

Because the building was seen as ephemeral, Sharp was allowed to modify it to suit his needs.

By the time the Yellow House dissolved into chaos in about 1972, the developer may have regretted that decision.

The ever-shifting group of people who came and lived, loved, made art and performed at the Yellow House had little respect for real estate. A hole in the wall – covered in mock fur – made it easier to access. It was hard to work out who exactly made what, and some works had their ownership severely contested.

Peter Kingston‘s Stone Room had ceramics made to order by George Gittoesmother, while the Hokusai-inspired Wave was painted by either Martin Sharp or Brett Whiteley depending what day it was as they both tried to impose their vision on it.

In the end it was Sharp who prevailed with the Wave, and in reality with every other aspect of the Yellow House. The glory of the house is that the art, the people, the performances, were all part of a giant living collage.

Martin Sharp was the artist who placed them all together, to create ever-changing patterns of excitement and oddity.

And so he continued for the rest of his life, as a magician placing objects in opposition so that they may be seen with new eyes.

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