Q: What prompted you to write Patrick Nagel’s biography?
A: As I write in the book, I was a young man when I was first knocked out by Nagel’s work. After I bought my first piece, I watched as the world, particularly the United States, went completely nuts over his stuff. The man made it bigger, faster than many artists like Toulous-Lautrec, Mucha, Cheret and even Norman Rockwell – all of whom were graphic illustrators – but unlike them, Nagel was pretty much forgotten. So this was a labor of love as much as anything else. I wanted to see the man and his legacy restored.
Q: What do you mean by “forgotten?”
A: Nagel’s work was red hot in the very early 1980s. When he died in early 1984, the value of his lifetime works soared ten-fold. By the mid-1990s, for a number of reasons which are discussed in the book, people could barely give his posters away. Most of the time, the pieces were dismissed as outdated “eighties art,” considered to be the stuff of man caves and nail salons. What most people don’t know is that the earlier, valuable limited editions could be easily confused later reproductions that really were worthless. So they junked the valuable pieces or stored them in terrible conditions. I estimate that of all the signed, numbered limited lifetime editions, probably 30% have survived. The rest were lost or destroyed.
Q: So the pieces were forgotten or the man himself?
A: Well, the pieces were forgotten, but Patrick Nagel himself never was known by the general public. He remained as anonymous as he was successful. At one point, over two million Americans had his work in their homes, but almost none of them could name the artist who created it. To this day, when I tell people I’ve written Patrick Nagel’s biography, they ask, “Who?” Then I show them his work and they all smile, “Oh yeah! I remember that! I used to have some of his posters!” Then they regale me with tales about how much fun the eighties were.
Q: What was the toughest part writing about his life?
A: Writing a biography of a man as private as Patrick Nagel is a foray into the forensic world of myth, recollection – and if you’re lucky – cold, hard evidence. By 2015, not only had Nagel been dead for over thirty years, but most of his friends, associates, relatives and intimates had disappeared as well. Along with the burgeoning Los Angeles art market, most them didn’t survive very far past the 1990s, either. Perhaps the result of the fast-paced lifestyle of the decades, many died young. Others faded into the background, leading patently normal lives, buried so deep that even the internet has no record of them. For the most part, all but those contributing to this book are mere ghosts memories, like the decade that has long since passed. So much of the book is pieced together from survivors – and surviving evidence.
Q: Why is there so little about Nagel and personal life?
A: For one thing, he was very circumspect and careful to not reveal much about himself to anyone. This characteristic would prompt some people to speculate about his private life, the two most frequently asked being his sexual preferences, and his finances. I didn’t write this book to scandalize Patrick Nagel, his memory or his family. To the contrary, I’ve used this occasion to dispel whatever myths and rumors may persist about him, with the purpose of putting these notions to rest for the very last time.
Q: How much was Nagel worth when he died – and afterward?
A; With regard to wealth, most records have been sealed, lost or destroyed. Patrick was not a businessman. While he was alive, estimates of his annual income have been bracketed from the mid six figures on the low end to the low seven figures on the high end – and that would be in 1980s dollars. The variance is due to two major factors: First, there is simply no surviving record of the figures in existence, and if there are, they’re buried so deep into government or private vaults as to be totally irretrievable. Second, the art world is a shady place, where cash trades under the table and empty boxes ship to locations in order to avoid taxes. There’s good evidence that Patrick owned about five percent of Karl Bornstein’s Mirage publishing operation, but there’s no record indicating if that equity ever distributed proceeds to its shareholders. In fact, the surviving shareholders maintain that their experiences with Bornstein and Mirage were more of a hobby than an income-producing investment.
Q: So then how can anyone really know how financially successful Nagel was?
A: It works something like this: My research indicates that after Patrick’s death, Karl Bornstein’s Commemorative and other “limited editions” ran a minimum of 3,500 pieces each (although most people agree the number could have easily surpassed 10,000 pieces of each image). For years after Nagel’s death, Mirage wholesaled each piece for a minimum of $50 each, which calculates out to a gross amount of at least $500,000 per image – and the CN series alone consisted of fifteen images. When the other posthumous editions are added to the mix in addition to works sold prior to Nagel’s death, a wholesale figure in the tens of millions is not unreasonable to assume. Those figures are in 1980 dollars, which would easily be tripled in 2015. Do the math.
Q: Okay, so what about his private preferences? Women? Men? Both?
A: Look, Patrick Nagel was clearly a sensual man, intent on experiencing his sensuality in both his art and personal life. He was, however, equally intense about his privacy, which often kept people guessing and keeping them guessing no doubt kept him amused. The fact that so much of his work, specifically his work for Playboy, is so sexually graphic may understandably pose questions about his own sexuality. For the record, I have no reason to believe that Patrick Nagel was anything other than a straight man who loved women, especially adventurous women and certainly those open to experimentation. When you read about his life and times, it becomes reasonable to understand to what extents experimentation may – or may not – have taken him.
Q: Why does the book spend time on his work process?
A: You have to remember that the vast majority of people who read this book may not have even been born before Nagel died. A whole digital generation has no idea of what art was like before Photoshop. They think everything can be done by pointing and clicking. Nagel died about two months before the first Macintosh was introduced. The biggest thing in technology back then was the fax machine, most which cost thousands of dollars. Video cameras were for professionals. Cell phones were huge and calls cost a buck a minute. Life was completely different and people need to know just how different before they can appreciate just how much effort Nagel put into his craft.
Q: So this isn’t really an “art book,” is it?
A: Hell, no. I mean, there are samples of his art from different periods that demonstrate his evolution both as an artist and as a young man. But this is a biography, a book about his life. If you want a book about his art, there are a few out there that are pretty darn good. This book will help you appreciate those books.
Q: What’s the oddest aspect about Nagel’s story?
A: Actually, it’s an amalgamation of odd characters, events and timing that I found strangely fascinating. All of us wonder about the Butterfly Effect: what would happen if one thing or one person just missed us? How radically would our lives have changed if we turned left that day instead of right? In Nagel’s life, there were so many people in just the right places at just the right moment that were so dissociated – and yet they all came together at precisely the right time in exactly the right way, to propel him to the top of the art world. It gives you hope that life’s randomness can lift you at any time, if you stay open to it.
Q: Okay, but specifically, what’s the one oddest aspect?
A: No, question, it’s Karl Bornstein. There’s no doubt in my mind that without Karl Bornstein, there would not have been Patrick Nagel, and just as much, without Patrick Nagel, there would have been no Karl Bornstein. The two were such an unlikely pair, such polar opposites, and yet without their yin/yang thing, none of it would have happened.
Q: What’s the status of Nagel’s work today?
A: The work falls into three basic categories. The lifetime serigraphs that are signed and numbered by Patrick Nagel himself are quietly gaining in value, for several reasons. People are waking up to their intrinsic value, but like most art, they’re the last pieces actually signed by the artist himself. Posthumous pieces, which were (obviously) not signed or were signed by Jennifer Dumas, Patrick’s widow, for authentication, have little value, especially because they’re not limited or numbered. Additionally, limited, signed, numbered lifetime editions, as I mentioned earlier, were inadvertently destroyed or neglected, so there are maybe 30% of the original issues left.
Posthumous editions, including the Playboy, Commemorative and Estate editions have almost no value. You can find them on Craigslist and garage sales. If you like the images, they’re great. But that’s all you’ll like them for.
Originals are skyrocketing. Nagel did thousands of acrylic and ink on illustration board, most of which were not signed, because they were done for advertising, music or editorial clients. Signed originals on illustration board are rare, and sell at a premium.
Canvas paintings are leading the way, investment-wise. Because he did very few canvas pieces they get snapped up at auction for insane amounts. In 2012, one piece sold for about $25,000. A year later, the same piece went for $60,000. The next year it jumped to $161,000. My theory is that those pieces will pull along the lifetime serigraphs, which is what I prefer to collect.
Q: What was the hardest part about writing the book?
A: It took a lot of time to figure out how to structure the story, because it really follows two parallel tracks: The evolution of Patrick Nagel, the person and the evolution of his career. I was pretty far into writing before I decided the book needed to be split into two parts, the first part explaining the man and then, armed with knowing who and what he was, showing the reader what his career was like. It was challenging to unbraid the threads over the timeline, but I think it works.
Q: What do you hope the book will accomplish?
A: Long term, I’d like to see the public revisit Patrick Nagel and permanently establish his legacy as one of the twentieth century’s greater talents. Short term, I’m convinced it would make a helluva movie.