Monday, June 14, 2010

In Praise of Artist Patrick Nagel (1945-1984)

Anyone who remembers the early eighties would be familiar with Patrick Nagel's illustrations, doubly so if they ever opened a Playboy magazine back then (Nagel contributed an illustration every issue for the Playboy Advisor/letters column). Reportedly variously influenced by Art Deco, the "finish fetish" sheen of California car detailing, Japanese woodcuts, and West coast minimalism, Nagel created something very impressive: a simple, stark, evocative and sensuous style that seemed to mesh with the times. Characterized by clean minimalist lines, void-like colored backgrounds, additional abstract shapes, colorless skin, and beautiful female subjects, Nagel reportedly often worked from photographs of live models and then began stripping away details he deemed extraneous in drawings before painting the even more minimalist final work. His style was modern, sleek, and embodied the stylistic turn of the page from the seventies to the eighties (even as he began this style in the mid-seventies). This was a hip, bold, clean style that was reductionist, derivative, but also totally original, and it became quite popular. I loved it and still do. I mean, look at this face, with everything so flattened and pale, yet fine detail with the loose strands of hair; the faintly colored eyes, evocative gaze, and the eye-popping nail-polish-color lips:

[there is another version of this one without the venetian blind shadows]

For those who didn't see Nagel in Playboy or fashion magazines, the Duran Duran album Rio used this illustration for their platinum-seller album cover. Nagel's illustration seemed to compliment the new wave/new romantic style of the band, a perfect and evocative fit at the right moment:

Newly on my own, I craved some of his prints around 1980-82, but I was too poor for such expenditures. I envied those that had them (and apartments worthy of them). By the end of the eighties I had forgotten them. Later on, I admit that I didn't see Nagel's work for a while, and then after a long absence I saw it again in the mid- or late nineties and it looked dated, out of step; it reminded me of the beginning of the eighties, and once the posters got out they were ubiquitous; his work was very overexposed. Now that I look at it again I see what I liked, even though it doesn't have the splash that it used to, but part of that is simply because it was so popular and recognizable. In a sense, Nagel's reputation is a victim of his popular success. And also, the subsequent rise of anime and graphic novel genres makes some of Nagel's work look even more common. Given this, it's hard to appreciate the freshness of his work in its original context if you didn't live through it.

Of course, I do not have copyright for these images but offer them in the spirit of criticism via fair use. These are some of my favs:

This one really evokes Japanese influence or at least style to me by suggesting a geisha with the hairstyle and collar, albeit a modern Caucasian Nagel Woman one. But check out the three shades of green he uses, saving the lightest (and most artificial and unrealistic) for the eyes. Plus, dig the blue lines he uses on borders or for folds:

So simple, yet how many shades of blue? Four? Are the hair highlights a different blue, making it five?

Click some of these to enlarge.

Sometimes of his more consciously fashion subjects pushed his work close to the more common fashion advertisement illustrations, though those were usually consciously more sketch-like and/or messy in their simplicity while his remained painstakingly sharp and clean:

Something I like about his faces is that even though there are barely any features (there is barely even a nose on this one), one still gets a sense of the subject's character. [click to enlarge]

Love the curves on this one:

While I love the eyes of his subjects, he did a bunch with sunglasses:

This last one was his bestseller and as a result was way overexposed:

It's sometimes suggested that Robert Palmer's women in his 1985 smash hit video for "Addicted to Love" were a take-off on the Nagel Women:

With his simple and streamlined style, Nagel's work is easier than most to parody and imitate, though arguably so much of it was absorbed into fashion and illustration culture and it no longer has the singular direct reference than it used to. This is my favorite homage/take-off (there are a lot of them out there, especially of celebrities), and it certainly matches the era: Princess Leia as a Nagel Woman:

The official Nagel page is HERE. They have a bio and a nice gallery. Give it some love.
There is an unofficial forum HERE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you enjoy Patrick Nagel's work, come join us in his unofficial forum: