Patrick Nagel: Duran Duran's 'Rio' Artist And That '80s Look

Fads | November 25, 2020

Palm Springs Life seriegraph by Patrick Nagel. Source: Heritage Auctions

Patrick Nagel's style is instantly recognizable. His cool, seductive graphics, seen in Playboy magazine and on the cover of Duran Duran's Rio album, capture the early '80s. Robert Palmer even brought the Nagel women to life in his video for "Addicted To Love." Nagel's style became so emblematic of a time and a vibe that his work fell out of favor, hard, in the late '80s and '90s. But in the 21st century, when nostalgia for the Miami Vice era came roaring back, Nagel's look has become a fixture on the Internet.

The world first came to learn about Nagel's work through Playboy when he was a regular contributing artist for the magazine in late '70s before evolving his work into a cultural examination of the female body and the way it inspired a generation of young men in the 1980s.

Nagel's artwork defined California, but he's from the mid-west

source: EMI

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1945, Patrick Nagel wasn't long for the mid-west. He spent most of his early life in Orange County, California, soaking up the rays and taking inspiration from the over saturated sunsets that drip down across the horizon. He briefly served in the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam war before moving back to California and studying fine art at Chouinard Art Institute and California State University, Fullerton where he received his BA in painting and graphic design in 1969.

The art world wasn't exactly waiting for Nagel when he graduated from college, so he worked as an instructor at the Art Center College of Design while freelancing on the side. Some of his work from this era appeared in ads for IBM, Ballantine Scotch, and Harper's magazine.

 Nagel took inspiration from Japan to make something uniquely his own

source: heritage auctions

Nagel's contrast heavy work was something wholly unique for the 1980s, but he was inspired by the woodblock prints of Japan. These pieces feature figures silhouetted against a neutral background with liberal uses of black and white. From this style Nagel created a template for his most famous work where women were displayed in close up in blacks and whites with splashes of color that created a forced perspective.

The sharp, linear style of his work has an art deco feel to it, and towards the end of his life many of his pieces featured as few elements as possible. Nagel's most popular work manages to be simple, yet refined, and the images have a celebratory sense about them that hides the true artistry.

Nagel didn't just grab a paint brush and hit the canvas. Instead, he photographed his models, often Playmates, before inking a minimalist piece of line work at his studio in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles.

The Nagel Woman

source: playboy archive

When the name Patrick Nagel comes to mind you think of the cover of "Rio" by Duran Duran, or simply of an ivory white woman inked in thick black lines. That's the most simple form of the Nagel Woman. These women are all self assured, intelligent, and distant from the artist and the viewer. The earliest version of the Nagel Woman appeared in Playboy Magazine around 1976, inspired by the women appearing in the magazine at the time but transposed through the influence of Japanese woodcuts.

Nagel's women were all sexy, but they weren't sleazy. He believed that pinups he painted all stayed out late and drank a little too much while staying in control. Appearing in the late '70s and early '80s, Nagel's work reflected the changing role of women in America. Their style was moving from cloistered to demure and haughty; they knew who they were and what they wanted and wouldn't take no for an answer.

In just a few short years Nagel's work changed the way the women looked. In the '70s the Nagel Woman was softer, more welcoming and vulnerable. By the 1980s they were jagged and cold, more self assured and impossible to reach.

He died after a charity event

source: hollywood reporter

On February 4, 1984, Patrick Nagel took part in a 15 minute "aerobathon" with a slew of celebrities to raise money for the American Heart Association in Santa Monica and shortly afterward he suffered a heart attack. His autopsy revealed that he suffered from a congenital heart defect that went undetected from birth. Nagel's body was cremated and his remains were spread across the Pacific Ocean, although there's some controversy about whether or not he actually asked for this treatment in his will.

After Nagel's death his manager, Karl Bornstein, continued to publish his work, but at that time the market was losing interest in Nagel. By flooding the print market with Nagel's work Bornstein effectively made Nagel's original paintings and limited-edition prints worthless.

It's hard to imagine such an evocative artist's work becoming so worthless so quickly, but thanks to his manager's efforts and those of forgers and copycats Nagel's work was reduced to nothing in just a few short years. It would be like if everything Andy Warhol did was wiped away following his death.

 Nagel's influence remains strong

source: getty images

Many people who were exposed to Nagel's work after his death likely came to him through knockoffs and copycats who created variants of the artist's prints that found homes on the walls of nail salons and tacky massage parlors throughout the late '80s and early '90s. Even with the market flooded with Nagel's work, his aesthetic remains strong, and even the disservice done by half-cocked versions of his work manage to carry some of the mystique of the artist's originals.

Patrick Nagel Is Gone, But His Style Was Reborn

Princess Leia in a Nagel-tribute style by artist Craig Drake. Source: craigdrakeart.com

As the 1980s came back into fashion in the 2000s and beyond, so did Nagel's work. Completely recovered from his low period in the late '80s, his work now holds a place in the pop art tradition of Lichtenstein and Warhol. That being said, Nagel never cared about being recognized as fine art, he just wanted to create something beautiful.

Everyone who looks back to the 1980s for an influence in their style or simply to remember a simpler time sees Nagel everywhere: in the large sweaters, the Wayfarer sunglasses, and even in the music. Nagel's work encompasses the 1980s in a way that no other artist does, by capturing the desire and erotic materialistic aspiration of a generation.

Tags: Art | Patrick Nagel | Playboy | Pop Art

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.