Think about the 1980s and among the first images that will come to mind for many of us are the illustrations of Patrick Nagel. The hard-edged geometry of his female subjects practically shout “Duran Duran!” and little wonder. He designed the cover for their 1982 album “Rio,” one of the era’s characteristic bestsellers in popular music. And yes, that Nagel hair was worn by many women in the ’80s, especially at trendy clubs and salons.
Before his fingers found their way to the pulse of the zeitgeist, Nagel had already enjoyed a long, successful career as a commercial artist. The Vietnam veteran and California State University-Fullerton graduate went to work for ABC news in 1971, where he designed graphics for broadcasts. He freelanced for an alphabet soup of other corporations, including IBM, MGM and UA, and executed work for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Playboy. Playboy proved to be his ticket, and the contours of the “Nagel women” were taking shape by 1978, when he began making posters for Mirage Editions.
Like many commercial artists with an education in the fine arts and art history, Nagel drew inspiration from the designs of other times and places. His search for the essence in simple lines and blocks of color and white space showed the influence of Japanese woodblock prints and the sharply shaped modernism of his images have drawn comparisons to Art Deco.
Nagel’s finished works were compositions in simplicity. He usually began with a photograph of his subject and whittled down extraneous elements (or distinct personality, critics would chide) until he was left with the hard lines of angular faces and sculpted hair. He tended toward rendering women whose black hair was offset against white skin and full, red-lipped mouths. Although Nagel helped define the look of a decade, he lived for little more than three years of it. He was only 38 years old when he died on Feb. 4, 1984. It was an ironic end. Nagel had taken part in a celebrity aerobics event to raise money for the American Heart Association, only to die later that same day of a heart attack.
I worked with a girl in the ’80s who, already a Nagel fan and collector of his prints, introduced me to the artist’s work. Not surprisingly, she had the Nagel visage, although her hair was shock-white platinum, slicked-back and sculpted, her skin was silkscreen smooth and her lips were always brilliant red. She carried off the look and immediately I understood the appeal of the Nagel market. There were already imitators of his style and poster reproductions of his limited edition prints, but for Rosemary, the only prints to collect were the silkscreens, hand-signed by the artist. Before his death, Rosemary was paying around $850 for a new Nagel release from the publisher. She may have owned two; I never saw them but this was the rumor in circulation. The purchase price for these signed prints was well outside our means in those days so we were impressed and a bit skeptical of her claim of ownership.
By the end of the decade, she was collecting the commemorative edition posters and paying considerably less. Published by the same group that launched his original editions during his lifetime, Mirage Editions created these high-quality silkscreen prints in volume with the intent to satisfy the enormous market that developed after his death. They were titled and numbered but of course not signed.
To the Nagel collector with a slim budget, the Mirage Commemorative Edition was the edition of choice. A popular image and Rosemary’s favorite from the posthumous period was Montana, a bold graphic of a horse and Nagel girl in profile and numbered with the distinctive code NC-13 or Nagel Commemorative-13th in the series of commemorative images. This numbering system can identify any print from the Mirage Commemorative series. This edition sold well but has not substantially increased in value. These prints can be found, framed, for a couple hundred dollars.
By the early ’90s, another posthumous Nagel series was published, this time by Jennifer Dumas and Lipman Publishing. Dumas, Nagel’s widow, was a model and occasionally posed for him. It has been suggested that she was the inspiration for the Nagel girl. Other editions have surfaced and offer the same fine Nagel imagery but are also unsigned by the artist. To the serious collector, the Nagel signature is desirable. Auction sales for the signed and numbered silk screen prints are sparse with several unsold lots published recently. Ebay, a dependable resource for studying the open market, lists a variety of Nagel editions from unsigned, mass-produced posters to signed and numbered editions. Pricing is as expected for the mass-produced posters: Under $50 for the most part; a few signed and numbered editions averaging out at $3,500. An exception in the signed category is a hand-signed exhibit poster from a Milwaukee gallery selling for $950. I have a recollection of Nagel attending a gallery show in Milwaukee, and he most likely signed the poster in attendance.
Those unsigned commemorative editions that Rosemary was collecting in the late ’80s are currently selling well on eBay in the $500-$700 range, which seems remarkable for an unsigned print. The high-quality of the prints most probably accounts for their desirability.
Nagel was prolific in his abbreviated career, producing limited-edition silkscreens, poster designs and original paintings, mostly acrylic on board or canvas. Because a catalog raisonne of his body of work has not been published yet, it is difficult to discern reliable records of the oeuvre. For the print collector, his pencil signature is a dependable standard for seeking authenticity with his silkscreen work.
His paintings, large, colorful and bold renditions of his trademark girls, come up infrequently at auction. “Noble,” a 39-by-29-inch acrylic on canvas, sold for $19,066 (hammer) at Braun Rasmussen Auctions (Copenhagen) in October 2011. His original illustration work appears more often. “Playboy After Hours” (1983), an 11-by-15 inch gouache and ink illustration, sold for $8,365 (hammer) at Heritage Auctions (Dallas) in October 2011.
The value of Nagel’s work will likely rise and fall according to the level of nostalgia for the period he defined: The 1980s.
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