Anyone around in the 1980s will almost immediately recognize the iconic, pop-art inspired work of Patrick Nagel. With its references to Art Deco, illustration, and a unique spin on esthetics, his illustrations on canvas, board or paper were a hallmark of the era.
Born in 1945, Nagel was an American artist who spent his early years in the Midwest before heading to Los Angeles in his teens. He served in the military during the Vietnam War and then headed to art school in L.A. beginning around 1969. His early career was as a graphic designer for television shows and news broadcasts. He soon moved on to corporate and magazine work, making materials for a wide array of organizations, including Universal Studios, MGM, IBM, and Architectural Digest, among many others.
The Artist Emerges
It was in the late 1970s when he was hired to do a gig for Playboy Magazine that his art began to evolve into the style most would recognize today. Emphasizing the “Nagel Woman,” it called upon precise lines, minimalistic style, and smooth lines. His women usually featured dark and angular hair, bold white skin, full lips, and contrasting colors against the background. The iconic album cover for Duran Duran’s “Rio” album is one of the most famous depictions of this stylized female figure.
Patrick Nagel's Artwork
He was the first to begin using this stylistic form of painting and illustration, which many liken to, Art Deco as well as Japanese block prints. He worked directly from photos to create a simple drawing and then convert it into a painting. He said his work was about “simplifying, working to get more across with fewer elements,” and he is known for the bold and dark lines that create perspective against flat backgrounds and lots of negative white space.
His popularity was immense, and for his first exhibition, his work sold out within less than 30 minutes’ time. His work was widely collected and remains popular in many museums and institutions, including the Library of Congress and the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at U.C.L.A. There are also permanent collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.
Naturally, it was the late Hugh Hefner who assembled the largest private collection of his work, displaying it at the Playboy Mansion. Sadly, Nagel died at the young age of 38 after suffering a heart attack during a celebrity event.
Art by Patrick Nagel
Nagel’s Work Today
Before he died, Nagel created many limited edition serigraphs, which were hot collectible items. He also began to paint on canvas less than a decade before his death and even commissioned several brass sculptures. He created 80 paintings and two statues (though they were never produced according to the pieces ordered).
The bulk of Nagel’s work should not be left to gather dust simply because he died early. It is beautifully rendered, and collections of his sketches and partially-completed drawings prove that he was a gifted artisan capable of creating inspired designs. The popularity of the “Rio” cover art is something that many think of as universal, and decades after it was on millions of t-shirts and sweatshirts, it (and other designs done by Nagel) remain recognizable and familiar.
Working like an old print master, he was able to use color in unique ways, and create perspective from flat images. His style was both formal and decorative, and it is why the Nagel Woman still appears on t-shirts, streetwear, wall art, and more. It also still inspires many others to use the same simplicity of color and line to create expressive work.
The Nagel Woman