Unhinged graphic invention: Oz magazine in London

A new exhibition on the irreverent Oz magazine emphasises the role graphic design played in the creation of its provocative messages – and its place in the UK’s thriving underground press of the 1960s and 70s

For viewers who have never seen a copy of Oz magazine and wonder what the fuss is about the long entry ramp at Chelsea Space is the perfect introduction. The curator of ‘We are Watching: Oz in London’, Cherie Silver, has mounted all 48 covers in sequence on the wall. There hadn’t been a magazine quite like this in Britain before (or since), though there were other underground publications.

Issues of OZ on display at CHELSEA space. Photograph courtesy CHELSEA space

Familiar as I am with Oz – I was a teenage reader of the later issues – I have never seen them all exhibited in this way. It made me wonder again how ‘graphic design’ should accommodate something like Oz in its history. This is the kind of material that gets left out of the professional graphic design lineage that focuses on the glorious Swiss tradition, slick corporate identity campaigns and now branding.

Yet Oz delivered a blast of unhinged graphic invention with its wild clashing colours and text superimposed willy-nilly on the pictures that can make more polished efforts look conformist and, as they used to say in the 1960s, uptight.

Oz and related material created by Oz contributors, as well as a selection of Sydney Oz. Photograph Rick Poynor

The first version of Oz was founded in Sydney in 1963 and edited by Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and the artist/cartoonist/designer Martin Sharp. By issue three the satirical magazine stood accused of obscenity and the editors were charged again in 1964.

The exhibition includes a number of irreverent early covers not familiar to a British audience, including one that caused particular outrage, showing the editors pretending to urinate into a wall fountain. They were sentenced to jail by a hostile magistrate, but the convictions were overturned on appeal.

Oz 1 cover, design by Martin Sharp, 1968

In 1966, Neville and Sharp relocated to London and started a new version of Oz (Australian Oz survived until 1969). Silver has assembled a mass of supporting material to tell the story and evoke the social and graphic mood of the times, and the walls and display cabinets are a patchwork of letters, documents, pulsating poster designs (often by Sharp) and revealing ephemera that repays attentive viewing.

‘Magic Theatre’ issue (left wall) and posters, letters, photographs, t-shirts, films and ephemera related to the Oz obscenity trial at the Old Bailey in 1971. Photograph Rick Poynor

There are two main areas of focus: the ‘Magic Theatre’ issue (no. 16) and the Oz obscenity trail at the Old Bailey provoked by the notorious ‘School Kids’ issue (no. 28).

The ‘Magic Theatre’ – ‘Price of admittance your mind’, cautions the cover – unfolds in its mutinous entirety on one wall, using the original printed spreads, along with reproductions of two artworks that show how this vast rolling cut-up was assembled by Sharp, assisted by the Australian artist and film-maker Phillipe Mora.

In the catalogue, Jim Anderson, an editor of Oz, says that he regards the issue as one of the ‘most significant achievements of [the] Underground Press’ and others, including the art critic Robert Hughes, have taken the same view.

Issues of OZ on display at CHELSEA space. Photograph courtesy CHELSEA space

Sharp and Mora’s targets included the war in Vietnam and American abuses of civil rights and they directed a prodigious, non-linear, psychedelic rage against these iniquities, using the collage techniques of Dada and Surrealism, and nude figures from Edweard Muybridge’s locomotion photographs to ramp up the graphic momentum. In their shared space in The Pheasantry on the King’s Road, which housed studios and a nightclub, the pair sliced up pages from hundreds of books.

Oz was once again proving to be a huge provocation to the establishment and Detective Inspector Luff of Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad – a surprisingly solicitous figure – was a regular visitor to the magazine’s offices. With the ‘School Kids’ issue, the editors finally went too far for the authorities, handing over their pages to a team of school-age contributors, who pushed the brief to the limit.

Martin Sharp, ‘Oz Number Four’, promotional poster for Oz 4, June 1967. On loan from Andrew Sclanders/BeatBooks.com

The activities of Rupert Bear, as we had never previously seen him, were disclosed in a collage by Vivian Berger and this infamous spread is on display.

One of the school kids, Deyan Sudjic, is now director of the Design Museum and he appears in a group photo (also in the show), giving the finger to Richard Neville, who raises a stick playfully as if to strike him. With his cropped hair, Sudjic couldn’t look less like a hippie and in a BBC documentary from the early 1980s, showing in the gallery, he puts it all down to youthful ambition.

Oz 8 cover, design by Jon Goodchild, 1968 (detail shown at top of post)

The 1971 Oz trial, where many notables spoke in the magazine’s defence, became the longest obscenity trial in British legal history. At an appeal, the convictions of Neville, Anderson and Felix Dennis were quashed. Neville followed Sharp and returned to Australia (Sharp died in 2013, Neville in 2016), while Oz, now a magazine in slow decline, continued to publish until November 1973.

The later issues are as garish as ever and they don’t hold back on the obscenity, but the typography by Pearce Marchbank and Richard Adams is more orderly and legible than Jon Goodchild’s famously impenetrable earlier issues. It’s a shame the show doesn’t have space for more spreads from throughout Oz’s history to make these comparisons, but given the gallery’s modest size it still pack a lot in.

Issues of Frendz and Ink on display in the Reading Room. Photograph courtesy CHELSEA space

The exhibition has a bonus attraction. On the way in, there is a Reading Room organised by students from the Chelsea College of Arts MA in Curating and Collections – it’s best to save it until the end. There are copies of Oz to leaf through and other underground publications on display, such as Ink, Frendz and International Times, as well as Spare Rib, the alternative women’s magazine founded in 1972.

Spare Rib magazines and ephemera. On loan from Marsha Rowe. Photograph courtesy CHELSEA space

Early issues designed by Kate Hepburn and Sally Doust are similar in graphic feel to issues of Oz from the same period, though the design became more conventional later. Marsha Rowe, who had worked on Oz in Sydney and London, was a founding editor of Spare Rib and she contributes an eyewitness account to the catalogue.

Anyone interested in the intersection of design, publishing and social ideas in the 1960s and 1970s should catch this show.

Rick Poynor is Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading. We Are Watching: Oz in London runs until July 14 at Chelsea Space, 16 John Islip Street, London SW1P 4JU. See chelseaspace.org

Oz 23 cover, photograph by Keith Morris, 1969

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