The Art of Patrick Nagel

The brilliant career of Patrick Nagel, one of America’s most significant contemporary artists, ended in February 1984 with his death at the age of 38, but a rich legacy of paintings, drawings, graphics and sculpture remains. Nagel’s use of silhouette, bold line, and unusual angles of vision recalls the Japanese woodblock print. His process was one of simplification, a stripping away in order to achieve a stronger impact with fewer elements. His images are formal yet decorative. His women are the quintessential women of the 80’s. A so-called popular artist, he became a creator of fine art.

Nagel and his work garnered international acclaim through work connected Duran Duran, for which he designed the cover of the best selling album Rio.

Nagel was known to always have either a cigarettemartini or a bag of M&M’s in hand. Due to his lifestyle, Nagel often stayed up long hours into the night, sleep during the day, and repeat the same process again. Some have speculated that Nagel was aware of his health due to his lifestyle and was said to have tried to quit smoking not too long before his untimely death. In 1984, at the age of 38, Nagel participated in a 15-minute celebrity «Aerobathon» to raise funds for the American Heart Association. After much confusion and wondering of his whereabouts, he was found dead in his car outside the aerobics studio having suffered a myocardial infarction heart attack.[5]


Nagel’s woman is complicated – which is the key to her subliminal appeal. She wants
attention, sometimes flauntingly, but remains distant. She appears intelligent, self-possessed, but removed. 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.



Barry Haun:


  • Patrick Nagel used more Payne’s grey than any other painter ever.
  • He never wore short sleeves.
  • He loved women.
  • He especially loved women with strong noses.
  • He thought Pennies from Heaven was a great movie.
  • He could play the accordion. He said his mom bought anything from anybody, and there was this door-to-door accordion salesman…
  • He loved peanut M&Ms, chocolate shakes (not to thick), fried onions, and coffee.
  • He said that if I wanted to work for him I would have to learn to how to juggle. Why, I don’t know, but now I can juggle.
  • He wanted to paint Jessica Lange’s portrait. Cher’s too.
  • He would stop work if he was out of Pepsi or coffee.
  • He thought exercise was stupid. For him, it turned out to be.I had seen Patrick’s work long before I had an idea of who he was. I didn’t know if the work was done by a man or a woman, but it appealed to me like nothing before had. I remember commenting, «If I could apprentice under anybody, it would be this person.» Watch out, you may get what you’re after! In less than one year I was Pat’s assistant. At first I was intimidated, but Pat had a way of making everything seem simple. He was the most even-tempered, good-natured person you could ever meet. Joe, his dog, is the same way. I’m willing to bet there isn’t a person who met Patrick who didn’t immediately like him. It was hard for me to imagine him as a paratrooper in Vietnam with eighteen jumps into the middle of combat. I can just picture his saying, «You guys go ahead, I’m going to sit here and finish this cigarette.» The only thing I ever asked him about that experience was what it was like to get shot at, and he said, «You learn to not take it personally.»I think I became quite spoiled working for him. I could get up at six, be at the beach by seven, surf until nine, and still be at work by eleven. At times we’d start with a photo session using the most beautiful girls imaginable. He would have already worked up thumbnail sketches of what he wanted to do, but he tried not to preconceive to much. Often he would get out and buy the models outfits, usually bringing in makeup and hair stylists, too. The sessions were always very professional. You could tell that he loved women, being drawn more to their sensual qualities rather than to their overt sexuality. He also loved details; for instance, he would talk about how women would remove a small bit of tobacco from their mouths with great delicacy in the days before cigarettes were filtered. He used many different models, but there were a couple of favorites.From the photographs he would work up drawings and then transfer them to illustration board or canvas, inking in lines, choosing colors, continually making subtle changes, working on the shading, finishing out the detail. There were quite a few steps before we had a completed image that could be shipped off for a silk-screening or exhibition. Pat sometimes had a hard time relaxing, but daily he would take a nap on the floor. He would occasionally get nervous about getting started on a new piece or about a show deadline.

    Work normally would start at eleven and continue until six, at which time we’d knock off, I’d go home, and he’d go upstairs to where he lived. There were times when I’d drop by at three in the morning and he’d be in the studio with the TV on, drinking coffee or Pepsi, and painting. At first I thought the work would get old for me, but that didn’t happen. I was continually amazed by the new images he’d come up with, and he was constantly refining and improving them. He was visually oriented, and his sense of design, color, and line was uncanny. Besides drawing and painting, he was becoming excited about the sculpture pieces and wanted to develop more.

    It will always be the idealized women he will be remembered for, but he also wanted to do more male images, as people responded well to the ones he did. Pat also loved photography and would have liked to become a better photographer, but he felt photography was too technical for him, so he would paint what he wanted to capture on film instead. He liked the work of high-fashion photographers, as well as other illustrators such a Joseph Leyendecker, Henry Raleigh. Saul Tepper. He especially loved the pre-Raphaelite painters.

    Although Nagel possessed wit and style, he loved to watch TV. He’d come into the studio and plan out his day with the TV schedule. Superman was definitely a favorite, though he thought Lois Lane was a bitch. He’d also be disappointed if he had an appointment during a Laurel and Hardy film. He liked sound tracks from spaghetti westerns. like Once Upon a TIme in the West, and he liked early rock and roll of the fifties, Presley, Sinatra, Cole Porter, Les Paul, and Paul Desmond.

    He was amused by his success, but he didn’t get a big head about it, he was just very happy being able to make a living from his work. He was thrilled by simple things—a fan letter from Tasmania, prisoners writing to tell him how they hoped to be artists when they got out, people saying they had bought furniture to match his art, some people buying as many as ten or twenty of his images. He was a check grabber at restaurants, he loved to drink martinis, he was hungry for trivia. He loved jokes: I can’t tell you how many bad jokes we traded and had to endure. But what are friends for?





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