Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Well here we are. Another week down here at the notorious Speakeasy Tattoo, Los Angeles. How is everyone? What does the CDC say today? Who knows? I’m sure it will be different tomorrow. I am feeling a bit low energy on this… Friday? …what day is it?
Is it still 1985?
If so yesterday was my birthday.
And if it’s not 85 yesterday was still my birthday.
What am I talking about?
So last week we talked about good old Tom of Finland. I promised that I would cover some more of my favorite artists and as I am sitting here in my living room looking around at the walls it’s becoming more and more obvious and more perplexing that I should’ve done this artist long ago.
Think of the 80s. What are you listening to? Where are you? Are you in a salon? Maybe looking to buy some sunglasses? Or, like many of us, flipping through the pages of Playboy. Whether on a poster in a hair salon or on the cover of a Duran Duran album you know his art. The quintessential, clean, beautiful work of the 80s. Of course I am talking about Patrick Nagel.
Like many of us Angelino transplants, Nagel was born in Ohio in 1945, but grew up in LA. During the Vietnam War, Nagel served with 101st airborne. It was here he did work as a cartographer (making maps), a skill he would later utilize in his career.
After the war, he earned his BA from Cal State Fullerton. Almost immediately he began working as a graphic designer for ABC television. This work, naturally as it is in Hollywood, lead to more and more connections such as Budweiser and Lucky Strike.
It is, however, not his ad graphics that he is most known for. Eventually Nagel landed a job with Playboy magazine. And while initially he was given specific directives on what to create for the magazine in the late 70s the editors realized what they had with Nagel and gave him artistic license to do what he wished. Nagel had a stunning way with the female form. Idealized women, usually with jet black hair and stately shapes. The smoothness and cleanliness of his lines are without parallel. Knowing that where not to put a line is equally if not more important than where to put a line. Similar to Vargas in decades prior, the “Nagel girl” was born.
In many ways Nagel can be looked at as the father of computerized vector art however Nagel did this all the old fashion way.
Starting with a pencil sketch working that sketch, transferring sketch to a larger canvas and painting it all by hand. Similar to tattooing, Nagel would start with the black outline, filling in the colors from there. No soft shading. Just subtle hue shifts to indicate a shadow here and there. The end result was some thing crisp and clean harkening back to ancient Japanese wood blocks just as much as modern 1980s aesthetics. What made Nagel‘s artwork so well-known and widespread wasn’t just it’s sheer beauty but also the nature of his art lent it self to be easily screen printed. Because Nagel only used hard lines (no shading or blending), each individual color could be separated onto individual silk screens and thus hand screened onto posters. These posters were used anywhere from gallery advertisements to album covers. Naturally, the aforementioned Duran Duran album Rio famously uses a Nagel woman. In fact, to this day Duran Duran and Patrick Nagel are almost inseparable in the social consciousness.
Sadly, in 1984 during any celebrity aerobathon, whose goal was to raise funds for the American heart Association in Santa Monica (cruelly ironic), Nagel died of a heart attack at the age of 38, leaving behind his wife and muse, Jennifer Dumas as well as his daughter (from a prior marriage). Interestingly, it was the ease of transferring his artwork to the silkscreen medium that led to a flood of counterfeit productions. By the 90s a result of both the oversaturation of the market with fakes as well as the perceived “dated “look of Nagel’s work, there came a time where his work was considered almost worthless and much of it was destroyed.
Nagel‘s legacy cannot be overstated. His artwork is almost inextricably linked to our perception of the 1980s. Today he enjoys a posthumous resurgence of appreciation in his artwork not only lending to insane market values for his posters but also a litany of copycat artists trying to mimic his style. I cannot say that I am not guilty of this. In fact one of my favorite pieces I did was a painting of Bauhaus front man Peter Murphy in the style of Patrick Nagel as a gift to my wife (pictured below). And while his style seems pretty straightforward and simple and thus relatively easy to mimic, the copycats never seem to quite get there. He is in a class of his own. So for now, we shall call it a day. Go put on Rio and cruise down Santa Monica.