Martin Sharp 1942-2013

Published December 5, 2013
Artist Martin Sharp at his Bellevue Hill home. Picture: Bob Barker. Source: News Limited

When the word Eternity was emblazoned on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the turn of the new millennium, it served to remind Australians of the remarkable talents of Martin Sharp. This famous piece of graffiti was the trademark of the religious eccentric, Arthur Stace, who spent almost 30 years chalking it onto walls and streets, but Sharp made it his own in his poster, Eternity Haymarket! (1977). This picture of Paddy’s Market, superimposed on Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is one of the great images of Australian Pop Art. The crowd of cartoon figures and comedians in the foreground forms a who’s who of popular culture – both homegrown and imported.

Martin SHARP 1942, Rose Bay, NSW, Australia  Eternity Haymarket! 1977
Martin SHARP 1942, Rose Bay, NSW, Australia, Eternity Haymarket! 1977

From his schooldays to the end of his life Sharp turned images that might seem trivial or ephemeral into monuments. He had a natural affinity with Pop culture, which came out in his posters for Cream, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Closer to home he was shamelessly nostalgic for Australian icons such as Mo, Ginger Meggs and Boofhead. His favourite artists – Hokusai, Van Gogh, De Chirico – were regularly thrown into the mix creating a dazzling montage that acknowledged no boundaries between the museums and the comic books.
Because he lived like a hermit in Bellevue Hill for 40 years, it’s easy to forget just how big Sharp was in the 1960s. The trials and triumphs of Oz magazine made his work notorious in London. His distinctive graphic style, his strong colour and savage wit made him one of the defining artists of the counterculture.
Despite his ascetic ways in later life, Sharp’s reputation has lasted. Even today there is probably no Australian artist who is so well known and admired internationally. He was the one local artist you could mention to somebody in London, New York or Paris, and get an instant response.
Toothsome troubador: Tiny Tim was one of Martin Sharp's passions.
Toothsome troubador: Tiny Tim.

It was a source of frustration to many of his friends that Sharp spent so much of his time repainting earlier works, or immersing himself in projects such as Street of Dreams – a movie about the singer, Tiny Tim, that kept him busy for years and drove him to the brink of bankruptcy. Generous but stubborn, the artist was a slave to his obsessions, from Tiny Tim to Luna Park. The 1979 Ghost Train fire became the subject of a passionate, seemingly endless crusade for justice.
Sharp lived in genteel poverty in a huge dilapidated house, providing accommodation to an ever-changing cast of friends and hangers-on, while the original artworks he hoarded kept climbing in value. Any other artist would have cashed in on the worldwide fame he had achieved, but Sharp was uninterested in the marketplace or personal wealth.
He was devoted to the idea that there should be no dividing line between art and life, or between elite and popular forms of art. Sharp had an optimistic view of human nature, imagining us all capable of enjoying beauty and having fun, being able to distinguish easily between the good and the bad. He lived out that philosophy in a world of his own making. In Eternity Haymarket! he proffered us a glimpse of his personal paradise.