Friday, 9 May 2014

Posters and paint

.....a riot of colour and exuberance which defined the sixties...

What makes the Hendrix print so awesome for me is that Martin mentioned he actually met Jimmy in London once over dinner and drinks! (James Heathcote 2011)

During the first half of 1968 Australian artist Martin Sharp (1942-2013), whilst living at the Pheasantry, King's Road, London, produced a stunning painting in acrylic on mylar of the American guitarist Jimi Hendrix. A variant watercolour version was shortly thereafter transformed into a page for OZ magazine and a poster entitled Explosion which was offered for sale by the Big O Poster company. This would be promoted through outlets such as Head shops and the alternate press, including OZ and International Times magazines in London, the Print Mint network in the United States, and various European outlets. Sharp's Explosion is one of the iconic posters of the late Sixties - capturing a moment in time when the excitement and energy of Jimi Hendrix was combined with the psychedelic art of the time to produce a truly explosive work. This blog discusses the history of the painting and associated posters. There are a number of gaps in the story, most obviously around the origin of the image and its eventual appearance as a series of posters from 1968 through to 2012.

The Martin Sharp paintings and posters of Jimi Hendrix were based on the original photograph taken by Linda Eastman at a concert held as part of the Rhiengold Central Park Music Festival in New York on 5 July 1967. Linda Eastman later became the wife of Beatle Paul McCartney, though she continued to pursue the art of photography throughout her life.

Linda Eastman, Jimi Hendrix live in Central Park, New York, 5 July 1967, photograph + poster.

Eastman's original photograph was reproduced at the time as a large poster, and it was this image which inspired the Australian artist to create his own version. The New York concert was attended by 18,000 people. Eastman's photograph is a classic shot of Hendrix in action, with his signature white fender guitar and pick arm extended as in a full-body chopping motion. It is interesting to note that this was one of Hendrix's first public appearances in the United States following his success at the Monterey Pop festival the previous month (16-18 June 1967). It was also the opportunity to introduce some of his long-time New York friends to the 'new' psychedelic drug LSD which he had himself been "turned-on" to upon arrival in London on 24 September 1966. LSD had been readily available throughout the United States from 1965 through to its declaration as an illegal substance in October 1966, though Hendrix became a heavy user during his time in England. He was very much part of the burgeoning London scene from his arrival there in September 1966 through to June of 1967, performing around London with his band the Jimi Hendrix Experience, alongside brief excursions to Europe. All the while he was expanding the repertoire of the band and recording his first album, producing classics such as Hey Joe and the ultra psychedelic Purple Haze.

Martin Sharp was resident in London at the time. He saw Hendrix perform on a number of occasions and met with him in person. The excitement of a Hendrix performance was something Sharp had personally experienced in the intimate London clubs when the American exploded onto the London scene and put down a challenge to the "guitar god" status of Sharp's flatmate and friend Eric Clapton. Of course the American Hendrix was very different to the blue-based and very English Clapton, though he blended into the Swinging Sixties London scene and became one of its key players for a brief, though significant, period. Whilst Eastman's photograph captures the form of Hendrix - the white on black guitar maestro - Sharp's original artwork went beyond that with a frenetic presentation of colour which attempted to replicate the psychedelic experience of a live performance and the multi-layering of Hendrix's unique guitar sound.

Martin Sharp, Jimi Hendrix [version #1], enamel paint on synthetic polymer film between two sheets of perspex, 1968 [1971 version]. View as seen by the artist as he applied the paint, with the guitarist presented correctly as a left-handed player.

The original painting - which now only appears to exist in a copy from 1971 - also reflected the influence of American artist Jackson Pollock, with its explosion of paint on the surface of the plastic sheet. Supposedly sometime during the first half of 1968 Hendrix made use of Eastman's photograph / poster as the basis for this multi-coloured, multi-layered image. Details surrounding the precise time at which Sharp produced the work are sketchy, as also are the materials he made use of. The 1971 version in the National Gallery of Australia is in enamel (acrylic) paint on synthetic polymer (mylar / perspex / plastic) film between two sheets of perspex. It should be noted that this may indeed have been the original 1968 London version, or a later copy produced upon his return to Australia. It nevetheless represents the earliest version of the painting. This version was problematic, as these mylar prints were generally viewed from the "other side" such that many saw the image in reverse.
Martin Sharp, Jimi Hendrix [version #1],  enamel paint on synthetic polymer film between two sheets of perspex, 1968 [1971 version]. View as seen from the other side of the mylar, and as displayed, with the guitarist as a right-handed player.

Ia 2009 article for the Guardian newspaper Germaine Greer, a long time friend of the artist and fellow resident of the Pheasantry where he lived during 1968, commented on the version she saw there:

I have a memory, which may be no more than a dream, of going into the studio he shared with Eric Clapton, and seeing a full-length study of Jimi Hendrix that he was painting in vibrant acrylics, on the back of several layers of Perspex film. That image of Jimi holding the Fender in his left hand, with his right holding the pick flung out parallel to the guitar neck, while a multi-coloured explosion begins at the strings and streams to the four edges of the picture, is an icon of 1967. I remember seeing it as a full-length figure painted in three separate layers. Martin didn't. He thought I might have got it mixed up with his equally votive image of Jagger. (Greer, 2009). 

The recollections of both artist and friend tend to confuse the issue around the so-called 'original' Hendrix painting - was it Greer's full length, multi-layered work on mylar, or perhaps the smaller, three-quarter length work now in the National Gallery of Australia? That work is multi-layered, though her comment that Sharp had a different view is not expanded upon.

And what was the origin of the less dramatic poster version? For some reason, the original, Pollock-like version was not used by Sharp when he was approached by Big O Posters during 1968 to transform it into a poster. There appears to have been some confusion, as the initial version was seen as an "error" when it seemingly presented Hendrix as a right-handed guitarist. Big O may have printed the first mockups of the poster as such, and hurriedly had them destroyed when the error was identified. Sharp subsequently produced a second version in watercolour.

Martin Sharp, Jimi Hendrix [version #2]. Original version as publish in OZ magazine #15, September 1968.

This is quite different in execution and less reflective of the influence of the American Pollack. The earliest record of its appearance is as a full page advertisement in the September 1968 edition of OZ magazine. This poster version appears to have been first printed and offered for sale around the same time. It is flatter and not as complex or dynamic as the original painting, though nonetheless a version of it. This second version in the best known and most common in print. No print copies of the first version are known, if they even existed. An original 'Pollock' version was later posterised by the artist and published as prints between 2004-13. Sharp's 1968 watercolour was initially published by the Big O Poster company of London in the form of a large, offset lithograph poster - 36 x 48 inches / 89 x 119 cm in size.

Martin Sharp, Jimi Hendrix [version #2]. Original poster as published by Big O Posters, late 1968.

Later copies, and those distributed through its American outlets during the early 1970s, are a smaller 27 x 36 inches in size. The poster differed in a number of significant ways from the original acrylic version. For example, the purple microphone which stood in front of the guitarist in the work on mylar had been removed; his blue and white suit was replaced by a flat green ensemble; orange hair now became a monstrous red flame; the large splash of exploding red paint emanating from the plucked strings of his guitar as he struck it was now replaced by a dab of insipid, watery colour and revealing the body of the guitar; and the thin, Pollock-like colour splashes in a tangled mess of red, blue and yellow which distinguished the first version were now thicker streams in blocks of red, yellow, blue (light and dark) and green. The squarish original was replaced by a more stylised portrait format. In seeking to "fix" the image for poster production, Sharp had made changes which, in the long run, he was not satisfied with. The poster nevertheless proved extremely popular. There is some mystery over the size and colouring of the earliest printings. For example, a copy is known which was purchased in Oxford Street, London, during 1970/1 and is the large 36 x 48 inches in size. 

Martin Sharp, Jimi Hendrix, MS16, Big O Posters, London, 36 x 48 inches. First printing?

This version does not include the bright reds seen in later prints, but rather a pale orange. Despite some fading with time, the colours are stated by the owner as close to the original print as purchased new. The inscription along the bottom of this original version of the poster is printed in black and reads: 

MS16 Hendrix by Martin Sharp. Published by Big O Posters Ltd., 219 Eversleigh Road London SW11 01 228 3392

The font used is similar to those of Sharp's Big O posters from 1967 and early 1968, such as Sunshine Superman and Live Give Love. As noted above, later printings of the Hendrix poster were smaller in size at 28 x 37 inches, and brighter in colour, with a more varied palette and stronger presence of red. The following is an example of this later printing.

Martin Sharp, Jimi Hendrix [version #2], Big O Posters, MS16, circa 1971. 
They bear an inscription at bottom in white, with a different font and slight variations in the text, such as including the words 'Printed in England' at the end, as follows:

MS16 Hendrix by Martin Sharp. Published by Big O Posters Ltd., 219 Eversleigh Road London SW11 5UY 01-228-3392 Printed in England

Some copies also include the name of the American distributor after the initial Big O address:

MS16 Hendrix by Martin Sharp. Published by Big O Posters Ltd., 219 Eversleigh Road London SW11 5UY 01-228-3392 Printed in England Big O Posters Inc. Box 6186. Charlottesville VA, 22906 USA. 804-295-0566

The posters offered for sale were printed using colour offset lithography, whereas Sharp's earlier posters with Big O were screen printed on foil. The two processes were quite different, and the former produced a higher quality print, with more ink on the image and less subject to fading and degradation by sunlight. As noted above, notification of this watercolour version first appeared within OZ magazine number 15, published in September 1968. Therein it had the words 'The Electric Circus' superimposed on it in connection with a new section of the magazine which followed and also in reference to a famous New York night club that Sharp had recently visited. Apart from that it was identical to the poster, if somewhat muted due to the printing and low grade paper used. The image was also used during 1969 by OZ to promote sales of the magazine, with a notice inserted in issue 22 indicating that some copies has been "silk screened" with the text "OZ IS INSIDE" and "3S" displayed prominently on it. These were for placement in shop windows and on street billboards.

 OZ magazine notice of Jimi Hendrix poster variant, OZ magazine number 22, July 1969.

A colour reproduction of this variant was included in the 1971 Big O Posters catalogue and a copy exists in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 Martin Sharp, OZ is inside, silkscreen poster, Big O Posters, 1971. Collection: Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The Hendrix poster was reprinted a number of times and appeared in Big O poster advertisements within OZ magazine through to the the last editions of 1973, wherein it was offered for sale for 95p. It is unknown at this stage for how long the poster stayed in print, and how many print runs Big O produced, though they were usually substantial and could run into the hundreds of thousands, as was the case with the Bob Dylan Blowing in the Mind poster. The Hendrix poster was printed on light grade paper by Big O. Its scarcity is likely due to a number of factors, including the large size, fragility of the paper, wear and tear due to popular usage, its ephemeral nature, degradation by sunlight, and possibly limited print runs arising out of the parlous financial status of Big O during the early 1970s.  A copy of the poster appeared within the Headopoly game sheet which accompanied Richard Neville's book Play Power - Exploring the International Underground, published in London at the beginning of 1970. The reproduction therein is small, printed in a monotone blue and with a 'Fuck Communism' image overlaying the bottom right corner.

 Headopoly game (segment), in Richard Neville, Play Power, London, 1970.

The Sharp image of Hendrix has featured in a number of publications over the years and is held by various art gallery and museum collections around the world. For example, it graced the cover of Mick Farren's 1976 poster book Get on Down, which dealt with a variety of poster companies, most notably Big O. In that cover version the quitar has a pinkish colour and the rest of the image is very bright.

The quality of some of the posters reproduced in the book would suggest that Farren had access to some of the original Big O printing artwork and layouts. The fist edition of the book also included a folded, smaller print of the Explosion poster. The latter has since that time featured in numerous publications on psychedelic art, rock music posters and the Sixties in general, most notably on the cover of The 1960s Scrapbook from 1999.

Robert Opie, The 1960s Scrapbook, New Cavendish Books, London, 1999.

The "erroneous" right-handed Hendrix as seen in the 1971 acrylic on mylar work was used in 1995 when a poster was produced in connection with the release of Richard Neville's autobiography Hippie Hippie Shake: the dreams, the trips, the trials, the love ins, the screw-ups, the sixties (Heinemann, 1995). This would have been derived from the copy in the National Gallery of Australia collection.

Martin Sharp, Hippie Hippie Shake, poster, 23 x 33 inches, 1995.

The precise involvement of Sharp in this work is not known, though he was a good friend of Neville and most likely agreed to the reproduction. It is interesting to note that, whilst the poster showed Hendrix right-handed, the paperback cover as subsequently printed reversed the image and showed him correctly as left-handed. It is also interesting that the poster version from 1968 was not used by Neville or Sharp for the initial poster / book cover.

 Richard Neville, Hippie Hippie Shake, Heinemann, Sydney, 1995.

Fixing it up...

Martin Sharp was never completely satisfied with the poster version of Hendrix. During his latter years he worked on a large version of the original Hendrix painting in oil and acrylic on canvas. He was photographed with this work in his studio during June 2012, just 6 months prior to his death.

Martin Sharp in his house with his painting of Jimi Hendrix, June 2012.

Sharp was prone to spend many years touching up works, and his Jimi Hendrix portrait was a good example of this. He pointed this out in an interview given shortly before his death in 2013 from the long term effects of smoking:

The image of Jimi Hendrix, his guitar exploding with red-hot energy, is propped on an easel in Martin Sharp's cluttered dining room. Assessing it across the table, Sharp is revisiting his celebrated work, whose riot of colour and exuberance defined the 1960s. The artist wants to fix the mistake he made when he portrayed the left-handed guitarist as right-handed. 'I didn't know whether he was right-handed or left-handed.' It has bothered him for years that the image he traced from a photograph by Linda Eastman (later McCartney), and splattered with paint like Jackson Pollock, has never been printed how he envisioned it. Like many of his early works, he created it on the floor of the Pheasantry, the mansion in London's hip Chelsea that he shared with a cast of artistic, bohemian figures, including Eric Clapton, and which provided the creative, collective milieu in which he has continued to live (Morgan, 2012).

This version reinstated the white and blue suit, the reddish Afro, the red splash of colour as the pick hit the strings, and the Jackson Pollock-like paint splatter background. Elements of the poster version remain, such as the removal of the microphone and the yellow rather than white guitar. Before his death Sharp saw his work fixed and completed, and made available to the public through a quality Australian print run which appeared in four known limited editions of 200, 250 and 200 during 2009, 2010 and 2012 respectively. The 2012 print was borderless and included the word 'Jimi' inscribed by the artist within the bottom section of the painting. On the later versions the inscription was on the the lower section of the white border.




Each version is a masterpiece and fullfils the artist's vision. Martin Sharp's Jimi Hendrix will live on as one of the iconic images of the Sixties.

Versions and Variants

The following is a listing of the known versions of the Jimi Hendrix work by Martin Sharp, both in paint and print. This listing will be subject to change as further information relating to the history of this work is obtained.

1. circa July 1968: Original version in acrylic paint on mylar, multi-layered - shows Hendrix with Jackson Pollack splashes of colour in the background and a microphone stand in front of him. When looked at from the rear (non-glossy) side of the film, the guitarist appears left handed. This version is only known from the later(?) 1971 version now in the Australian National Gallery collection. It is unclear whether the colouring of the original is exactly the same as the 1971 version in which, for example, Hendrix is in a blue suit with orange hair. The original version may have been a fuller length work, as noted by Germaine Greer, though this version could also be refered to as full-length. It is also possible that the '1971' version is the original version, and not a later copy. Guitar colour - blue-grey.

2. September 1968:  Second version in watercolour on paper - originally publish in OZ magazine #15, September 1968. Text 'The Electric Circus' included on upper right corner in association with OZ article that follows. This version shows Hendrix as left-handed, in a green suit with red hair and background splashes of colour which are less Pollock-like than the original. This version was subsequently used for the Big O poster. Guitar colour - pale creamy white.

3. 1968: Original poster 1968 - based on the OZ magazine image of September 1968. This is the most well known version as it was in print from 1968 through to the mid 1970s by Big O Posters. It is the version most often reproduced in publications and included in exhibitions. Copies are also obtainable via auction houses and retail around $2000. It is designated Big O Posters, MS16. The earliest known version was very large at 36 x 48 inches. The inscription at the bottom was printed in black. Guitar colour - pale creamy pink.

4. July 1969: Silkscreened, sales poster version of the September 1968 image, with the text "OZ is inside". Produced as a poster for promotion of the magazine. A copy is known in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Guitar colour - white.

5. 1970+: 2nd poster printing - based on the OZ magazine image of September 1968. Big O Posters, MS16, 28 x 37 inches (68 x 94 cm). Smaller in size than the original Big O print and with the inscription at the bottom of the poster in white. This is the most common version of the poster. The text in the inscription. Guitar colour - pale creamy pink.

6. 1971: Painted copy of the original July 1968 version, on mylar, with Pollock background and microphone stand. Donated to the Australian National Gallery collection by Jim Sharman in 1984. Hendrix is in a blue suit with orange hair, though in reproductions of this work the suit may have a greenish tinge and the hair more yellow. NB: It is also possible that this in a copy or original from 1968. Guitar colour - blue-grey.

7. 1976: Small version of the 1968 Big O poster issued with the Mick Farren book Get on Down: A decade of rock and roll posters. Also printed on the cover of that book. Guitar colour - pale pink.

8. 1995: Poster issued for the release of Richard Neville's biography Hippie Hippie Shake, featuring the 1971 right-handed variant of the original image. This was subsequently reversed for the cover of the book. In both images Hendrix is in a blue-green suit with orange hair. Guitar colour - pale creamy white.

9. 2004: Limited edition print of 200 based on a newly painted version of the original 1968 work, with Hendrix as a left-handed guitarist in a pale blue suit and with red hair. Sharp also reinstalled the original Jackson Pollock styled background. Screenprint, no border. Inscribed within the lower section of the work e.g. 5/200 JIMI 2004'. Guitar colour - yellow.

10. 2009: Limited edition print of 250 based in the newly painted version of the original July 1968 work. Screenprint with border. Inscribed along the lower border of the work e,g, 5/250 JIMI 2009'. Guitar colour - yellow.

11. 2010: Limited edition print of newly painted version. Screenprint with border. Inscribed within the lower section of the work e,g, 5/200 JIMI 2010'. Guitar colour - blue-grey.

12. 2013. Jimi, acrylic on canvas. This is a large work on canvas, and the artist's final version. Guitar colour - yellow.


Desmond, Michael and Dixon, Christine, 1968, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 96p. Catalogue of an exhibition held between 29 July - 29 October 1995.

Farren, Mick, Get on Down! A Decade of Rock and Roll Posters, Demsey & Squires, London, 1976.

Greer, Germaine, Want to know what the 60s were like? Then look at Martin Sharp's work, The Guardian, 23 November 2009.

Morgan, Joyce, Interview: Martin Sharp, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 2012.

Sharp, Martin, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Sharp Limited Edition Posters [website], Evermore Productions, Stroud, 2004, available URL:

Lawrence Weibman, Speedy Romeo (after Sharp), poster, 2016. "This poster was made in commemoration of Speedy Romeo's Manhattan grand opening. The inspiration and background is from the 1967 Martin Sharp Jimi Hendrix "Explosion" poster. The pizza is playing Eddie Van Halen's guitar as the oven at Speedy Romeo Manhattan has the same motif on its exterior. The pizza was drawn by hand in Microsoft Paint directly over Hendrix's figure. The "Grand Opening" type font was done in Photoshop with assistance from independent graphic artist and music producer Dave Marino."

Michael Organ
20 July 2017