How the Art of Patrick Nagel, Still Seen in Nail Salons Today, Crystallized the 1980s Aesthetic

To find a visu­al def­i­n­i­tion of the nine­teen-eight­ies, you need look no fur­ther than the win­dows of the near­est run-down hair or nail salon. There, “fad­ed by time and years of sun dam­age,” remain on makeshift dis­play the most wide­ly rec­og­nized works of — or imi­ta­tions of the works of — artist and illus­tra­tor Patrick Nagel, who spe­cial­ized in images of women with “sleek black hair, paper-white skin, bold red lip­stick and a look of mys­tery, pow­er, and cool detach­ment.” So says Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his new video essay above on the sud­den rise and last­ing cul­tur­al lega­cy of the “Nagel women.”

As Puschak tells the sto­ry, the fig­ure respon­si­ble for launch­ing Nagel and his women into the zeit­geist was pub­lish­er Karl Born­stein, who “had been in Europe admir­ing the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bon­nard, Parisian poster artists of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and came back to Amer­i­ca look­ing for an artist of his own time when Nagel walked into his life.”

Around this same time, “the man­ag­er of the Eng­lish new-wave band Duran Duran saw Nagel’s work in Play­boy, and com­mis­sioned a pic­ture for the cov­er of their 1982 album Rio” — which, apart from all those salon win­dows, gave most of us our first look at a Nagel woman.

These and oth­er pop-cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tions “helped to cement the Nagel woman as an emblem of the decade.” For years after Nagel’s death in 1984, his “chic, fash­ion­able, inde­pen­dent” women con­tin­ued to serve as “aspi­ra­tional images,” but even­tu­al­ly, amid mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion and chang­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties, their bold look of glam­or and pro­fes­sion­al­ism began to seem tacky. Nev­er­the­less, redis­cov­ery always fol­lows desue­tude, and suf­fi­cient dis­tance from the actu­al eight­ies has allowed us to appre­ci­ate Nagel’s  tech­nique. “Day by day, lit­tle by lit­tle, Nagel removed details until he arrived at the fewest num­ber of lines that would still cap­ture the spir­it of his mod­els,” using rig­or­ous min­i­mal­ism to evoke — and for­ev­er crys­tal­lize — a time of brazen excess.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Who Designed the 1980s Aes­thet­ic?: Meet the Mem­phis Group, the Design­ers Who Cre­at­ed the 80s Icon­ic Look

How Art Nou­veau Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic Designs of the 1960s

Down­load 200+ Belle Époque Art Posters: An Archive of Mas­ter­pieces from the “Gold­en Age of the Poster” (1880–1918)

Down­load 2,000 Mag­nif­i­cent Turn-of-the-Cen­tu­ry Art Posters, Cour­tesy of the New York Pub­lic Library

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed Exclu­sive­ly to Poster Art Opens Its Doors in the U.S.: Enter the Poster House

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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