Music & Other Drugs

When we talk about the 1960s, certain words come to mind: peace, love and revolution. In an era of great social and cultural upheaval, music became the mouthpiece of a generation. Indeed, the intertwining of music and culture was so pronounced that when we look at an artwork like Martin Sharpe’s, we are not only exposed to a representation of a musician, but a portrait of an age.

Sharpe’s artwork has an inherent musicality to it. The discs act as a visual embodiment of sound, reverberating throughout the work. The shifting sizes of the circles seem to undulate like music, transforming the aural experience into the visual realm. The reference to Bob Dylan’s song, Mister Tambourine Man, further brings meaning to the abstracted shapes, as the lyrics allude to the hallucinatory effects of LSD. In Sharpe’s artwork, we behold a sprawling stream of consciousness, which hypnotises the viewer - compelling us not only to listen but also to hear.

AGNSW collection Martin Sharp Mister Tambourine Man (1967) DA17.1970
AGNSW collection Martin Sharp Mister Tambourine Man (1967) DA17.1970
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor (1919) OA17.1960
AGNSW collection Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor (1919) OA17.1960

“I got a head full of ideas that are drivin’ me insane” - Bob Dylan

Despite being aesthetically at odds with Sharpe’s artwork, we can also see the pervasive influence of music in Roy de Maistre’s painting. The artist articulates sound through the use of colour and line, which projects a sense of rhythm in the work. Indeed, the sweeping, curving lines of the composition evoke a sense of the musical directive, legato – which is characterised by a fluidity of strokes and movement. We experience a synaesthesia through this sensory overlap.

AGNSW collection David Aspden Black music (2003) 93.2008
AGNSW collection David Aspden Black music (2003) 93.2008

Where Roy de Maistre’s painting is characterised by flowing notes and unbroken compositional lines, David Aspden’s Black Music presents sporadic bursts of colour and shape. In Black Music, the painted blue fragments energise and inject vitality into the work, as the bright hue draws our eye from one point to the next. The seemingly random shapes produce an unpredictable feel in the work, which recalls the frenetic style of jazz.

AGNSW collection Max Dupain recto: The saxophonist
verso top: Untitled (fashion illustration)
verso left side: Untitled (fashion illustration)
verso right side: Untitled (fashion illustration) (recto 1935) 104.2003.12
AGNSW collection Max Dupain recto: The saxophonist verso top: Untitled (fashion illustration) verso left side: Untitled (fashion illustration) verso right side: Untitled (fashion illustration) (recto 1935) 104.2003.12

Similarly, the overlaying of images in Max Dupain’s photograph creates a sense of movement in the work, as our eyes dart between the hands of the saxophonist. It is difficult to focus on any single point in the work, as the mixing of images leaves us struggling to discern where one instrument begins and another ends. Once again, music is used to animate the still image.

AGNSW collection Ken Unsworth Rapture (1994) 185.1994.a-j
AGNSW collection Ken Unsworth Rapture (1994) 185.1994.a-j

Turning to look at Ken Unsworth’s Rapture, we see a grand piano whose keys are literally ascending – as the piano has taken on the shape of a staircase. The sculpture is simultaneously recognisable and yet foreign, as we see the familiar components of a piano transformed into a surreal shape. Indeed, the uncanniness continues when we look up to the top of the piano, which appears to be filled with hay. It seems that, unlike the other artists' work, in Rapture we will hear no music.

Tai Mitsuji is currently studying a combined arts/law degree at the University of Sydney. He works as an editorial assistant at The Sydney Morning Herald, and writes about art in his spare time. Tai likes eating poached eggs, and dislikes writing about himself in third person. His one true love is his basset hound, Francis Ford.