Pleasure / September 2016

Martin Sharp: Art as Pop, Pop as Art

Australia’s greatest psychedelic pop purveyor occupied the space between sound and vision, sacred and profane, art and design.
Cream Album Cover by Martin Sharp, 1967.

In 1965, author William S Burroughs remarked, “I see no reason why the artistic world can’t absolutely merge with Madison Avenue. Pop art is a move in that direction. Why can’t we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images?” Although he never went to work for an ad agency, iconic Australian psychedelic pop artist Martin Sharp — like his contemporary, Andy Warhol — certainly broke down the barriers between media, marketing and packaging design, with much of his most memorable work not adorning gallery walls, but instead, magazine covers, record sleeves and posters.

Brought up in a wealthy family, attending the exclusive Cranbrook school in Sydney’s leafy Bellevue Hill, while at art college in the early sixties Sharp fell in with writer Richard Neville, the two soon collaborating on seminal countercultural magazine, Oz, where Sharp served as art director. The publication’s irreverent content — raunchy wordsmithery and imagery that thumbed its nose at authority and conservative good taste, while taking a stand against war, corruption, gender, sexual and racial discrimination — saw Sharp, Neville and his co-editor Richard Walsh twice charged with obscenity, narrowly escaping jail and quickly beating a retreat down the hippie trail to ‘Swinging London’.

"Much of his most memorable work did not adorn gallery walls, but instead, magazine covers, record sleeves and posters."

There, Sharp happened to meet a young guitarist named Eric Clapton, who mentioned he was in need of lyrics to accompany a tune he’d composed. The Australian artist jotted down some poetry on a napkin — which Clapton in short order recorded as ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, the B-side to his band Cream’s smash hit, ‘Strange Brew’. Clapton then commissioned Sharp to design the trippily illustrated cover for Cream’s LP Disraeli Gears, the two by this point cohabitating at Kings Road artists’ commune, The Pheasantry (alongside fellow contemporary cultural figures including writers Germaine Greer and Anthony Haden-Guest, and top rock photographer Robert Whitaker).

Sharp won the New York Art Director’s Prize for his design of Cream’s third album, 1968’s Wheels of Fire, that same year finding the musical muse he’d be inspired by for the remainder of his days, eccentric American minstrel Tiny Tim. Sharp’s imagery for the falsetto-wailing ukulele stylist remains among his best-known work, alongside the seminal psychedelic rock posters he created around this time for acts including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Donovan, which to this day are hallucinogenic staples on smoked-out students’ walls the world over.

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.