WORDS: BEN MEDINA '19
Patrick Nagel is one of those people whose work wedged itself so deeply and securely into the popular consciousness that we actually need to take a step back to appreciate how genuinely interesting and compelling it is. His pretty pictures burrowed into the culture as art for Playboy, ads for cigarettes and lifestyle items, posters, and the iconic album cover for Duran Duran’s Rio. Nagel is responsible for a certain monolithic, enigmatic, Art Deco-evocative 1980s woman. He’d work from photographs, stripping down and abstracting his portraits to a cool, collected, controlled beauty. He was obsessed with minimalizing, constructing his images from sharp black lines filled in with fields of color.
The distant, exactingly calculated intelligence of Patrick Nagel’s work, the minutest amount of line necessary to create a curved shoulder or a cheekbone, the focus of the creator focuses the viewer. He’s using some of the Impressionist goals of evoking the emotionally loaded essence of an image from life, but working from controlled black lines instead of fervid dashes of color. These pieces share some DNA with, but are too fully embodied and self-contained to belong in, a comic book or cartoon. The Nagel prints and posters aren’t directly commenting on anything sociopolitical, the way Cindy Sherman’s immaculately allusive alternate histories of cinema are. Their values are pre-Modernist, in that Nagel is invested in creating compelling, contemporary, interesting images that you can look at over a long period of time and not get bored. The received narrative of art history is that the raw image has had its power and primacy slowly stripped over the course of the glacial shift from Impressionism to Modernism to the Post-Modern, but the Nagel piece defies this narrative.
The poster I have, Blue Sweater, of a woman in a blue sweater, shares wall space with a really cool abstract impressionist painting by Nicolas de Stael, Klimt’s Woman in Gold, and Artemisia de Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. And a poster for an Italian exploitation movie called Danger: Diabolik. They’re all lusher and more jam-packed with detail than the Nagel poster. But I look at Blue Sweater more than any other thing in my room. Perhaps it’s because the poster, as an image, is so much more in tune with the interests and concerns of a contemporary capitalistic American society than the other pieces, so it’s sort of hotwired itself into my interests, the way it’s easier to watch an episode of Miami Vice than The Marriage of Figaro. But then again, the piece is doing something more, regardless of its familiarity. The woman in the blue sweater meets your gaze calmly and implacably. She’s too abstracted to be titillating. The work is just there. It doesn’t have a strident Modernist agenda like the Klimt, and it’s not an anguished masterpiece about power and sexuality like the Gentileschi. Nonetheless, it is pleasurable and compelling, and it sustains your gaze. Is it enough for an image to just be there? I’m not saying it exists in a vacuum, just that it’s invested in some idea of visual beauty or interest that we typically disregard.
We’re used to thinking about images as things that exist only in reference to something else. For example, X conceptual doodad (pile of dirt, used condom on a plinth, the word “FUCK” scrawled in sharpie on a piece of plastic in a trash bag) in the physical world is solely a referent to some vast invisible set of agendas and social concerns. This image on a train station wall of John Travolta performing amiability in front of an airplane exists only to get you to buy a watch. Which is in itself a referent to a larger invisible set of oligarchical goals and aspirations.
There’s something silly and beautiful about Nagel’s investment in the image as a thing in itself. I don’t think this studied blankness is necessarily a bad thing. It’s a really powerful, interesting, difficult thing to do, to create something that doesn’t really mean anything per se but can nevertheless stand the test of time and attention, that can continue to elicit a strong emotional response.
Memorable pop songs and certain types of movies do this too. They’re silly and meaningless but also somehow so vibrant and powerful. Just sit down and try to winnow out what a Bowie song is actually doing. The music is some sort of sad circus waltz, the vocal is a mincing lounge reptile, but suddenly he screams “you’re not alone” and I’m crying and don’t know why. Another example—the SNL performance of Ultra Light Beam, off Mr. West’s TLOP. Denim chorus in the background, hyper-saturated digitally degraded clouds streaming by on a huge screen, the floor is a mirror, Chance’s verse barely makes any sense at all, but put it all together and it’s devastating. That performance makes me believe in God when I watch it.
This strain of cultural detritus doesn’t need to be coddled or cherished. My goal here isn’t to protect it or vaunt it above anything else. I just want to point out what nonsense art is and what it’s doing. There’s nothing more to do. People are going to stare at Blue Sweater or listen to Young Americans or watch Roadhouse whether I advocate for them or not. These bits of culture have the tenacity of cockroaches. They’ll live through an apocalypse. I’ll take a Nagel poster and a lushly nonsensical Kanye verse in my concrete-reinforced bunker over a pile of dirt any day of the week.