With a resurgence of 1980’s and early 1990’s nostalgia, there has been an abundance of art and music that draws inspiration from the decade of excess. From the creative visual and musical artists showcased on New Retro Wave to Indie pop to video games as well as revivals of classic characters and intellectual properties in mainstream popular culture, there’s no doubt that the retro styles of the recent past have their appeal.
Today I will be focusing on one very prominent visual artist of the 1980’s, who’s illustrative works have famously defined the entire decade and has become a major inspiration for some of our contemporary artists. Patrick Nagel (1945-1984) was an America illustrator known for his flat, 2-D art, which were simplistic, yet complex renditions of women. Although his birthplace was in Dayton, Ohio, he lived most of his life in Los Angeles, California. Nagel attended the Chouinard Art Institute after serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He received his bachelor's degree at the California State University, Fullerton in 1969 and began his art career, teaching at the Art Center College of Design while building his value up as a professional illustrator and graphic designer.
In 1971, he worked as a graphic designer for ABC Television and as a freelance artist for other companies and magazines such as IBM, Rolling Stone, MGM and Universal Studios. in 1972. 1976 was the year that would hint at the direction Nagel’s later efforts would take. During that year, he worked on contributions for Playboy magazine, where his work received a wider audience and his signature “Nagel Woman” name.
Aside from Playboy, Patrick Nagel also designed album covers of popular musicians of the time, most notably Duran Daran’s 1982 album, Rio. Other recording artists’ albums included Think It Over (1978) by Cissy Houston, In Touch (1976) by Tommy James, and I’ve Got the Music in Me (1975) by Thelma Houston & Pressure Cooker.
According to the official website of Patrick Nagel regarding his poster art, during the 100 years prior to his time, “poster art has been one of the most humble, influential and pervasive of all the arts.” Unfortunately, it was a dying artform in the United States in the 1970’s as it was losing much of its effectiveness to capture audiences’ attention. Nagel reinvented the art form by displaying something of value to the market that he could offer with his skills:
“[I]n partnership with Mirage Editions and fine art printer Jeff Wasserman, [Nagel] sought to recapture the beauty and power that posters once held in popular culture by returning to a model created at the turn of the century with artists such as Toulouse Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre. They sought to produce the highest quality hand screened art prints that would also serve as collectable advertising art for businesses. Over Nagel’s career, 60 limited edition silk-screened prints were completed and were sold out upon release and Nagel’s iconic women found their way to worldwide recognition.”
Because Nagel showcased rare works that the market could reward, his career proved to be a major success, not only in quality, but also in subject matter. The women depicted in his prints were always known to be “complicated”, creating a rather fascinating ambiguity into her mind. What the Nagel women wants from the viewer is lure their attention towards her. There is a bit of self-importance, yet she’s very reserved. There is also a sense of indifference, yet astuteness and elegance that adds to that ambiguity in her character. There was a reason Nagel retained this vagueness as his official bio adds:
“Nagel often said that he didn’t really want to know these women too well. He imagined them as creatures of the night who drank and smoked too much. Perhaps, but they remain always in control. In the pin-up tradition of women as object, Nagel’s portrayal of them was a break from the past, reflecting the rapidly changing role of women in America. His style evolved subtly along with the times. His women of the seventies are shown as softer, more vulnerable and innocent than his stronger, more self assured women of the eighties.”
Because of the way Nagel portrayed his subject matter, it made his work and their traits memorable. As the Nagel Women continued to take shape throughout his career, he kept increasing their worth in the the art world and market. Even in the fashion and music scene, his works became iconic.
In the years after Patrick Nagel’s death in 1984, his works remain highly regarded worldwide. Zach Kelly’s piece on New Retro Wave covers Nagel’s impact on today’s artists as well as his contemporaries. Examples of such include Comedy Central’s short-lived 2015 adult animated series, Moonbeam City, created by Scott Gairdner (Parental Advisory Warning for language and adult humor). Kelly highlights that “Gairdner encapsulates many facets of the [retro] movement, through a nostalgic Miami-Vice theme, however the distinctive character illustrations and some of the execution of colour is a direct throw to the art of Nagel”. He then describes the album covers of the artists whom are often featured on NRW. ALEX’s 2017 EP, entitled Youth features art by Jacqueline Ruther, Mizucat, which adopts a similar approach to how Nagel portrayed women, while incorporating color and more detail to the woman in the image. The woman featured on Trevor Something’s 2014 release, Trevor Something Does Not Exist, displays a similar art style, by Ariel Zucker (Parental Advisory Warning for gruesome imagery), with the figure’s own elegance and ambiguity blended with more detail. Synthwave musician, SelloRek/LA Dreams pays homage to Nagel with a track, titled Nagel Girl, which Kelly praises how it “matches Nagel’s art well.”
As for Nagel’s contemporaries whom Kelly mentions, such as Carlos Sanchez, Dennis Mukai and Luis Preciado, they each have created works of art, depicting the Nagel-esque woman, while “[adding] their own flavour to the artsphere”. Kelly includes one piece from each artist to illustrate the similarities and contrasts to Nagel’s work. Thrill Me by Carlos Sanchez shows a woman smoking, expressing a similar aloofness to that of the Nagel Women. In contrast to Nagel’s works, however, Sanchez illustrated more detail on the woman’s face and features much like that of the styles of Ruther and Zucker. Dennis Mukai’s Special Friend compares to Nagel’s style by adopting a slightly different, yet similar minimalistic technique in the design, while retaining that sense of elegance seen in Nagel’s posters. Genevieve by Luis Preciado is similar in composition, concept and style. It is distinguishable in its spotty backdrop, making the piece a bit more playful than Nagel’s design.
Without a doubt, Patrick Nagel's short lived career has left major impact for the culture of his time as well as today's creative artists. By reinventing the art of the poster and expressing a unique perspective for his subject matters, Nagel not only created memorable works of art that art lovers would remember him by, but he displayed a tremendous amount of value through his skills that both the market and the art world could reward. When looking back on the traits that made Nagel's art distinctive, it's not just the sense of nostalgia one feels from viewing his work, but the vision and craftsmanship behind them that extends one's appreciation for them.
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