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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Patrick Nagel

Palm Springs Life, 1980s, Patrick Nagel
Patrick Nagel
I've long complained about art critics and writers who insist upon differentiating between painters and illustrators, especially those who, consciously or not, relegate illustrators to some degree of lesser status than painters. After all, virtually all illustrators are painters, but not all painters are illustrators. Only the best of them. Very often the primary difference between the two (if there must be one) is that an illustrator produces work primarily for publication; while the traditional painter works on canvas so art galleries can cover up nail holes in their sacrosanct, off-white walls. A few artists plant one foot in each profession and do quite well in both. That was not the case with Patrick Nagel. All his life, he never considered himself more than a graphic designer.

The Nagel Girl, 1980s, Patrick Nagel
Very often such artist--painters, illustrators, graphic designers--whatever you want to call them, have a stylized ideal of feminine beauty (or male beauty, in the case of J.C. Leynedecker) that is closely tied to their name and the decade in which they were most active. That was the case with Patrick Nagel (above). Artists as far back as Peter Paul Rubens, as well as several 20th-century artists like Harrison Fisher (1900-1910), Charles Dana Gibson (shortly thereafter), Charles Sheldon (the Breck girls of the 1950s), Howard Chandler Christy, Jon Whitcomb, Rolf Armstrong, Jason Brooks, and several others who don't fit neatly into a given decade. Each had their iconic "girls." Some of them actually competed with one another for historic dominance. Nagel, however, does fit very neatly into a single decade--sort of, 1975 to 1985.

The minimalist Nagel style.
Born in 1945, Patrick Nagel was a Dayton, Ohio boy, who spent most of his life in southern California. After returning from a tour of duty in Viet Nam, Nagel studied art at Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. and Cal-State, Fullerton. There he received his BA in 1969 in painting and graphic design, which was heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. For a time he worked as a graphic designer for ABC TV, while also doing freelance work for Architectural Digest, Harpers', Oui, and Rolling Stone magazines, as well as IBM, ITT, MGM, United Artists, and Universal Studios. However, it was Playboy magazine which "made" Nagel.

Yochum Kay, 1980s, Patrick Nagel
Nagel's women (they were never "girls") began appearing on the pages of Playboy around 1976. Had they been photos, they would have blended in with the rest of the soft-core porn typical of Playboy and its ilk of the time. But Nagel's method was to start with outstanding photography, then to simplify it, removing most of the color and half-tones to leave a flat, stylish, minimalist image some have related to the Art Deco style of the 1920s. Thus they stood apart from most of the magazine's female content. At Playboy, Nagel became the heir-apparent to 50’s pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. But unlike Vargas, Nagel's work was pure graphic design as opposed to illustration, which normally is associated with some kind of storyline. There were ads, of course...Lucky Strike cigarettes (below) for one, as well as Ballentine Whiskey, Intel, Budweiser, various upscale retailers, and fashion houses. But most of his magazine images were simply decorative, used to grab readers and break up large blocks of text.

The advertising message was subtle. The men in Nagel's ads displayed the same stylish minimalism, except for the fact they displayed less skin.
Rio, by Duran Duran by Patrick Nagel
In looking at the vast majority of Nagel's work, you might get the idea he painted only women. Actually, it would be better to say, he painter mostly women. While Nagel's women were sometimes nude, or nearly so, the men were more nearly what you'd call "overdressed." Around 1982, Nagel began doing album covers for recording groups, his most famous, a classic called Rio for the group, Duran Duran (right). Shortly thereafter, Nagel took a liking to the sexy, self-confident image of Joan Collins (then appearing in the glamorous TV series, Dynasty), whom he felt typified the 80s woman he idolized in his work. He sent her a photo of his stylized portrait of her. She liked it, and ended up owning five of his paintings.

Patrick Nagel and his 1980s idol, Joan Collins.
Joan Collins, 1983, Patrick Nagel
Critics have often faulted Nagel's work in that all his women tend to look alike. However, even though he worked from dozens of different models, they were all what one might term "Playboy-beautiful." Given that, and the great degree of graphic simplification he employed, the similarities, were largely unavoidable. If you may be wondering why you're unfamiliar with the work of Patrick Nagel, it's likely because of his tragically short career. On February 4, 1984, shortly after taking part in a fifteen-minute celebrity "aerobathon" to raise money for the American Heart Association, Nagel was found dead in his car, having suffered a heart attack. He was thirty-eight.

Woman with a Horse,
1983, Patrick Nagel



  1. This makes me think of another mostly forgotten artist/ illustrator of the early 20th century.
    What is your take on the portrait artist/ illustrator Joseph Cummings Chase?
    He seems to have been huge in his day. Painting presidents, military men, actors, sports people and more. Obviously well regarded in his day.

    1. Bryan--

      I've briefly checked out the work of Joseph Cummings Chase, which appears to warrant consideration as a future item. I'll look at him again in the future. Thanks for bringing him to my attention and thanks for following my blog.

  2. I worked as Pat's advertising art rep for a few years. He was a wonderful talent and a great-great man.

  3. Ruth--

    Thanks for your input, it's always nice to hear from people who were acquainted with those about whom I write. I guess I must be getting more and more readers, it seems to happen more and more often these days.

  4. Great article. Nagel art is slowly dissappearing with time

    1. Andrew--
      Probably not so much disappearing as simply becoming more valuable (and expensive) as time goes on. That's usually the way it goes. It's still available (for a price).