Ukiyo-e and Nagel

by Todd Bingham

Nagel was an academician, a student of art history. He was well trained, of course, attending the Chouinard Art Institute and at California State University, Fullerton, where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1969 in painting and graphic design. After graduation, he began teaching at the Art Center College of Design. But moreoever, he was a student of his own work. I'm not sure he was aware of his position as the (then) modern day counterpart to the great 'posterists' who had proceeded him-Lautrec, Mucha, Cassandre, Holwein. But it became evident, even obvious, and admittedly was accentuated by his untimely death.
His work reflected the same influences as those on previous great posterists -- the Japanese, Ukiyo-e woodblock print. (Like those shown at here by Hiroshige and Katsukawa, ca. 1800). Ukiyo-e (the floating world) was to Japanese art history what Impressionism was to Western Art.

A pivotal point to graphic art history was the influence on Paris in the late 19th Century by the Japanese approach to the decorative arts. When the ports of Japan were opened by Commodore Perry in 1854, all of Western Europe was enthralled with the whole notion of 'Japonisme'. In Paris, then the center of the universe in terms of the arts, the artists of the day were delighted by what they saw coming from Japan: cloisonné, fabrics, porcelain, and of course, the tradtional woodblock printmaking motif.

With the development of color lithography in the mid-1800's, all of these new 'styles' were translated into the current rage for prints: large areas of color encompassed by bold line, little gradation in tone, less information, more stylized design. In the work to the upper right, by Jules Cheret -- considered the 'father' of the modern day color poster -- one can see the graceful marriage of typography and image, the lightheartedness and 'joie d'vivre' of the print. Below left, the most famous of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, very Japanese in composition -- very little background, very little emphasis on realism (this poster recently sold at auction for nearly a quarter of a million dollars, by the way).The entire 'less is more' concept was fast becoming the way graphic art was composed. This influence can be seen in the works of all those artists mentioned above, and of course, is perfectly suited to Nagel's style. Patrick brought to it his sense of contemporary color, economic design sense and the gentle treatment of the perennial icon and oft-used motif of fine art: the femme fatale.Nagel's women were not the women we were used to seeing in art history. While lovely and alluring, Nagel's women were contemporary women -- bold, aggressive, stand-offish, independent. The influences of the Japanese is more than typified in Nagels' work throughout his career


I truly believe that body of work which Patrick himself must have perceived as his contribution to the genre he loved most -- the illustration and design of great posters -- has immortalized him. His work continued the tradition started by graphic artists as far back as the 18th Century. He put his own, contemporary stamp on it.

The Nagel "look," has never, will never be duplicated.

So, no apology for being so long-winded. The fact is, though, that I could write an entire book on Nagel. Someday someone will, much better than I might. But for now, I congratulate you for getting this far. It means only one thing: you are a die-hard Nagel enthusiast.

Todd Bingham

TBFA, February, 2000 (updated in 2008)

(One more thing:For a look at the great and classical posterists of antiquity, visit this site (it's not mine, and they don't send me a toaster if you do business with them...)

So, what's the bottom line
of the future of these prints?

One thing is certain in my mind: someday, people will want to know about Patrick Nagel.

Art Historians will wrack their brains attempting to research all this. Because those prints, and the way they stack up to each other, state by state, will be what will dictate value and price. Because some day, all that lifetime material, both signed and unsigned, will be priceless. To further the analogy to those posters by Lautrec and Cheret, bear this in mind: those posters were not only casual advertising media, they were actually meant to deteriorate on the walls and hoardings around Paris. They were never meant to survive. And yet, they have.

At the time of this writing, there is no "catalog raisonné" on the work of Patrick Nagel. (A catalog raisonné is defined as a catalog of the complete body of work, by a certain artist, as of that time. If the artist is deceased, then it would propose to reflect all the work ever created by that artist -- drawings, paintings, prints, etc.) A daunting assignment and not easily compiled. But there will be one for Nagel. Someday, an art historian will take it on. For the moment, we have only the book ("The Art of Patrick Nagel"; Alfred van der Marck Editions, 1985) and ghost the recollection of those who were and are familiar with the work.

As a dealer in Nagel for nearly 30 years, I do qualify in the latter regard. I did some time working with Nagel's publisher, Mirage Editions. Actually, I worked for Karl Bornstein at Mirage twice: the first time was in 1985 or '86 but it only lasted for an afternoon, before I realized that one of us would probably end up killing the other. Later, in 1991, after I had matured somewhat, I spent two great years with Mirage before it went under in 1992. During that time, I was the interface for the FBI in their investigation of the fraudulent counterfeiting of Nagel serigraphs. And somehow, gratefully, I am the individual whom Playboy refers when people call them about Nagel (at least for the time being). I am very familiar with the work -- the "lifetime" work primarily, although I do have a substantial inventory of "real" commemorative graphics. And we do sell them.

But my interest is and has been primarily in the "lifetime" work.

Here is probably the essence of this entire historical treatise -- if you are interested in the ongoing value of Nagels' body of work insofar as the fine print is concerned, consider this: in his life Nagel did 34 posters. Each of them had on average, two states: a signed and numbered edition of 250 and an unsigned state (signed in the screen when printed). With artist proofs, printers proofs and other miscellaneous pencil-signed iterations, we can estimate there are approximately 8,800 prints with Nagel's pencil signature. In addition, he did 21 signed and numbered, limited editions that were not posters, which had an average edition size of around 100, or approximately 2100 signed, limited editions.

That would mean there are (approximately) 11,000 signed and numbered, limited editions prints with Nagel's personal, pencil signature on them. Forever. Compare that to the number of graphic prints by the average artist and you will understand that it is a VERY SMALL BODY OF WORK WHICH IS SIGNED BY THE ARTIST. Now that the demand for these prints has begun to increase, the value of them will go through the roof.