He was as surprised as anyone when his solo show at La Luz sold out. "I thought, 'Wow, this is amazing! I'm successful!'"
Although Agle continued doing commercial art for several years, today, with rare exceptions, he sticks to fine art. "With commercial art," he says, "you are usually directed in what you do. But with fine art, I can do whatever I want."
Shag has also cut back on his merchandising—cups, T-shirts, and the like. At first, he says, "any company that wanted to license, I said yes." Today, any new Shag product will be a limited edition—and high-end. Look for some $120 Hawaiian shirts.
"Licensing the images served its purpose," he says, "it got my artwork out there for people to see."
He may not be a Peter Max, but Agle does attend to marketing, using both a licensing and a commercial agent. He directs overall strategy.
Chief among his strategic decisions is: Agle does all the artwork himself. With assistants, he says, "There could be questions. Is it really an original?" He also sells through galleries, not on his own. "People were saying the gallery system is dead, you should sell on your Web site. But having a gallery adds legitimacy," he says.
In real life, Shag is unlike the characters that populate his paintings—though he does enjoy a cocktail; and he and his wife, Glen Way-Agle, like fondue. He does not smoke. These days he's listening to Weezer and the Kills, along with organ jazz. Since Zoey, 10, and Zach, 6, came along, Agle rarely makes the scene. But at his art openings, Shag does make a splash, driving up in a classic car and sashaying through in a vintage suit.
But he's too nice a guy, too soft-spoken and well mannered to really play the star. At one opening, Shire remembers, Agle got waylaid in the parking lot by 40 or 50 autograph seekers. He only made it inside after Shire told the crowd, "This has got to stop."
"He can't say no," Shire says.
The Agle home, built in 1962 by an unknown designer, has a touch of Japan and a fair bit of Tiki—at the entrance and in the studio, and with the 380-plus Tiki mugs displayed between the living and dining areas. There's a rail pole from the original Don the Beachcomber Tiki restaurant and one from Pongo Pongo in Arizona. The pool and waterfalls, however, are Tiki free.
Agle may be doing well—but he's not quite where he wants to be. Being identified with lowbrow art doesn't bother him.
Lowbrow art tends to be more illustrational than what passes today for fine art—more attuned to hot rods, Bettie Page, and grinning devils. "It's become a little bit more proletariat" than fine art, Shire says, less enslaved to the "arts establishment saying what is good and what people should like." He adds: "These people now are buying it [lowbrow art] because they like it."
"I don't have a problem with the term lowbrow," Agle says. "Most of the artists do have a problem with that. They think it's demeaning."
Besides showing in galleries in many cities—including Los Angeles and Palm Springs, New York, Seattle, and Tokyo—he has had a one-man exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum.
Still, it is annoying that not everyone takes what Agle does seriously.
Some of his newer work is growing larger in size and theme, with more figures, and more going on. "They're a little more surreal and decadent than I've been in the past," he says.
"Real fine artists with blue-chip galleries, that's where every artist wants to be. Every artist wants to hear that his painting has sold for $5 million at Sotheby's," Agle says.
But for now, he says, "I love painting. I love being a painter. And that's what I want to do."
Photos: John Eng, Adriene Biondo; and courtesy Lee Joseph (of Dionysus Records) and Josh Agle
All Shag paintings courtesy Josh Agle
• To find a gallery carrying Shag paintings, check his website, shag.com. For prints, go to shagmart.com. Shag's next book of art, 'Autumn's Come Undone' (Baby Tattoo Press), is due out in September 2009. It features a series of large-scale paintings that, says Shag, "will be darker and more personal than anything I've done in the past." Also don't miss 'Shag: the Art of Josh Agle' (Chronicle Books).