Sunday, 18 February 2018

Abraxas & Abraxas Redux - the story

Compiled by Roger Foley-FOGG (with the assistace of Michael Organ)


Martin Sharp, Abraxas, 1968. Acrylic on perspex. Collection: Roger Foley-Fogg.

ABRAXAS by Martin Sharp was painted at The Pheasantry, London, during 1968. This was at the same time, and with the same technique, that Sharp painted the famous work EXPLOSION, featuring guitarist Jimi Hendrix. The original ABRAXAS painting was produced in a square format, 91 cm x 91 cm, on a thick sheet of perspex, using acrylic paints. Sharp applied paint to one side of the transparent material, and the finished work was viewed from the other side, through the perspex. Sharp's Australian colleague Phillippe Mora, who was also resident in the Pheasantry at that time, had started to experiment with the use of animation cells. He noted that: 'Martin liked the slick finish and started trying his hand. This progressed quickly and we got large perspex sheets... The black outline or other colour had to be done first. Then the background and/or colouring-in was done last.' (Mora 2018). The subject of ABRAXAS was a multicoloured, psychedelic image of what appeared to be a face, comprising mostly circular, bubble-like elements in red, green, yellow and  blue, with a pale blue background. The image also featured a central, yellow sun in the centre of the figure's forehead. The radiating, circular bubbles in the lower half of the image are reminiscent of those which featured throughout Sharp's 1967 Bob Dylan poster. A work which appears to be ABRAXAS can be seen stored in the Pheasantry in a drawing by Birgitta Bjerke, who visited there in 1968. It is amongst a group of paintings and drawings visible in the right of the picture, leaning up against the wall of a corridor.

 Birgitta Bjerke, Interior of The Pheasantry, London, circa 1968. Watercolour on paper. 

During 1968-70 Sharp made use of transparent plastics in a number of works, including a series of posters he called Smartiples which were published by Big O Posters of London between 1969-70.
The Flying Eye 1969

In the latter instance, the images were screen printed onto thin sheets of mylar, as opposed to the thicker perspex material used in ABRAXAS. One of the Smartiples - entitled The Flying Eye - bears similarities to ABRAXAS, though it is much simplified in design and the use of black, blue, red and yellow inks.In a 1979 interview with Australian surrealist James Gleeson, Martin Sharp described Abraxas as 'a god of destruction.' In a later, 1982 interview with Lowell Tarling, published in the latter's Sharp - The Road to Abraxas 1942-1979, he put it in the following terms: Abraxas - God and the Devil in their counterpoint. Darkness/Light. The tide going in and out at the same time. Terrible Abraxas. To look upon Abraxas is blindness. To know it is sickness. To worship it is death. To fear it is wisdom. To assist it not is redemption. I don’t know what it means. I’ve never been able to work that out. It’s not for man to know Abraxas. When you’re locked up in it, I suppose it destroys you. Abraxas is the Sun, but at the same time the terrible sucking gorge or the void (Tarling 2016). Abraxas is a term which has modern references within the work of magician Alistar Crowley, novelist Herman Hesse and psychologist Carl Jung.The term entered popular lexicon in 1970 when it became the title of an album by San Francisco rock band Santana. On the rear of the album cover was the following quote from Hesse's book Demian, which may have resonated with Sharp at the time of the painting's creation: "We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas...." The image was closely associated with that seen on the inside fold out cover of the Cream LP Wheels of Fire, issued in August 1968. Sharp was a good friend of Cream lead guitarist Eric Clapton - they shared accommodation in the upper floors of The Pheasantry. The Wheels of Fire image is similarly psychedelic and multicoloured, most likely the result of the taking of the drug LSD. The two pages feature two eyes, with similar bubble-like elements and a palette of red, orange, yellow and green.

 Martin Sharp, Inside cover, Wheels of Fire LP, August 1968.


A Foley-Fogg describes it: Abraxas can be simply described as the God of Destruction and Creation, and a representation of Quantum Physics. Abraxas is the God of Gods, in a similar manner to the Hindu deity Shiva. Abraxas is a representation of ‘Energy' which cannot be created nor destroyed. And a representation of the creation of our Reality, the creation of our Universe from the Multiverse, by the  collapse of the Wave Function, the destruction of all other realities, when observed.  This phenomena is described by the Two Slit Light experiments of the 1920s and the subsequent ‘spooky’ - to quote Einstein - experiments which became Quantum Physics.  And of course this resonated with Dr Timothy Leary who immediately asked Martin if he could use Abraxas for the cover of the English edition of his book “The Politics of Ecstasy” published in 1970. So it was both ironic and karmic that the original painting ‘Abraxas' became damaged in 1971. And subsequently restored. As noted, Sharp's ABRAXAS image was first published on the cover of the English edition of Timothy Leary’s book The Politics of Ecstasy, published in London during 1970 by Paladin. Leary had visited Sharp in his studio at the Pheasantry and immediately admired the work.



ABRAXAS returned to Australia with Sharp in 1970 and was on show at The Yellow House in Sydney during 1971. It was here that it was damaged and eventually saved by Roger Foley-Fogg, who then purchased it from the artist's mother Jo Sharp after Martin's departure once again for England. Later, and with Sharp's approval, Foley-Fogg proposed restoration of the work, to be financed by the sales of prints. The first restoration was done professionally by a Ms. Hagen in 1990. Further restoration was done photographically by hand and then later digital copies were made and restored further with the idea that Sharp and Fogg would have posters made and sold. Fogg has been slowly digitising, restoring and producing the artists proofs and prints of ABRAXAS over the years as money became available.

 The restored Abraxas digital print.


Fogg writes: We were never totally satisfied of course. However when Martin died in 2013 I decided that it was finished and, after consultation with friends and collectors, I agreed that it was good. Fogg added a Lightshow to the painting and print. This expanded its psychedelic effect and it became something different as the colours started to resonate in the brain of the viewer, reflecting the LSD experience which had likely given rise to the work. Sharp had stated that he never worked whilst under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, however his experiences with them during the period 1966-8 had an obvious effect. He was one of many artists of the time who attempted to replicate elements of the psychedelic experience through their work. 

Roger Foley-Fogg with the Abraxas Redux Lightshow box. Photograph: Stephen McLaren.


The limited edition print version by Sharp and Fogg, ABRAXAS, has been exhibited for many years, alongside the Lightshow version ABRAXAS REDUX, including at the following:

* The Magic of Light, Exhibition and Convention Center, Singapore, 1999.

* Art for Mart Exhibition, South Hill Gallery, Goulburn, 2013.

* VIVID, 107 Projects Gallery, Redfern, 2014.

* The History of Lightshows - 1960s to NOW, VIVID, The Rocks, Sydney 2016.

The work was also shown at a number of live music psychedelic concerts, pop events, happenings and music halls. An indication of the psychedelic effect of ABRAXAS with the Lightshow of rapidly changing colours, can be seen in the following YouTube videos:

 
 Abraxas Redux after Martin Sharp, by Roger Foley-Fogg. Duration: 1 minute. 16 May 2014.

Abraxas Redux after Martin Sharp, by Roger Foley-Fogg. Duration: 1 minute. 19 May 2014.

 Abraxas Westshow at VIVID 2016, by Roger Foley-Fogg. Duration: 1 minute. 10 June 2016.


In viewing the video, it is suggested that one focus on the centre of the image for a few seconds and feel the expanded psychedelic aura of the work enter your brain. Note that in reality this visual effect is much more dynamic, particularly in a dark room or projected onto a stage, as was common with psychedelic lightshows during the 1960s and 1970s. At this point (February 2018) the original ABRAXAS awaits restoration as the thick mylar is in a number of pieces. It is suggested that preservation occur through placement between two pieces of transparent polycarbonate material, to both stabilise and protect the work. Despite this, 50 years on it remains a significant work by Martin Sharp, produced at the height of the psychedelic era and reflecting very much the art of that time, and the important role Sharp played in reflecting that.

References


Bjerke, Birgitta, Interior of The Pheasantry, London, circa 1968. Watercolour on paper. Collection: Birgitta Bjerke.

Foley-Fogg, Roger, Abraxas Redux after Martin Sharp [video], YouTube, 16 May 2014. Duration 1 min. Available URL: https://youtu.be/Vj3cML-U5bU.

-----, Abraxas Redux after Martin Sharp [video], YouTube, 19 May 2014. Duration 1 min. Available URL: https://youtu.be/ZrNYlIywOzo.

Gleeson, James, Interview with Martin Sharp, National Gallery of Australia, 7 November 1979. Transcript. Available URL: http://nga.gov.au/Research/Gleeson/pdf/Sharp.pdf. Accessed 1 October 2014.

Leary, Timothy, The Politics of Ecstasy, Paladin, London, 1970.

Mora, Phillippe, Painting on perspex, Email to Michael Organ, 21 February 2018.

Sharp, Martin, Abraxas, acrylic on mylar, 91 cm x 91 cm, 1968. Collection: Roger Foley-Fogg.

-----, The Flying Eye, Smartiple, silkscreen on mylar, MS7, Big O Posters, London, 1969.

----- and Roger Foley-Fogg, Abraxas, digital print, 2014. Collection: Roger Foley-Fogg.

Tarling, Lowell, Sharp - The Road to Abraxas 1942-1979, ETT Imprint, Exile Bay, 2016.

Last updated: 8 March 2018

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