The Secret Art Of Harold Krisel

Today we’re selling Harold Krisel’s bold and abstract art work. Taylor Quist tells the story behind this amazing artist.

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Many artists strive for fame and fortune. A lucky few achieve it during their lifetime, some receive it posthumously, and most never do. Painter, printer, and architect Harold Krisel (1920 – 1995) took an entirely different tack. While studying architecture at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, this native New Yorker found himself drawn to the dynamic free-natured forms of the modernist and abstract art movements that were taking the art world by storm in the 1940s.

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He joined American Abstract Artists (a membership he’d retain his entire life). He met artists like Piet Mondrian, and befriended design luminaries like Gyorgy Kepes—founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT— and Harold Cohen. He also started creating a dazzling body of screenprints and paintings that few would see until nearly 60 years later.  

See, Harold Krisel was also a family man. After university, Krisel moved his family back to New York where he worked at architecture firms designing modernist fountains, graphic installations, even mammouth textiles that show his enviable attention to form, color, and texture. These formal positions did not mean, however, that the soul of an artist was stamped out; in fact it was quite the opposite. Relieved of the stress and obligations of selling his  art to support his family, Krisel was free to create as he pleased in his off time, developing a visual language that was years, if not decades, ahead of its time. 

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Rather than working in a studio, Krisel preferred to paint at his kitchen table, and was commonly asked by his wife, Rose, to clear his work for dinner. He was also careful to reuse supplies, either recycling materials for future works of his own or for use as still lifes for his daughters’ painting lessons. In 1965, Krisel took a position at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. He reveled in the regular schedule and spent each summer day creating piece after piece, painting after painting, print after print, and storing the bulk of his work in a private storage unit.

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Once retired, Krisel was finally free to pursue his art full time, and found himself commissioned to create sculptures, fountains, and graphics. A portion of his personal work was also exhibited at small spaces like the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, NY. Happily occupied until the end, Harold Krisel passed away in 1995.

Despite this attention in older age, Krisel was far from well known as a fine artist, and it wasn’t until 2008 that his wife, Rose, invited two curators from Chicago’s McCormick Gallery to look through her husband’s vast body of work.

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What was found by Thomas McCormick, Vincent Vallarino, and Rose in that cramped storage space was a treasure trove of canvases, prints, tubes, boxes, frames, and piles of loose papers that revealed an artist unfettered by the market, disinterested in the “scene,” and completely honest. “He did it for the love of it,” says Rose. “He just had to do it.”

So impressed were the gallerists with what they referred to as a “tsunami” of artwork, that in July 2009, Krisel was given a solo exhibition at the McCormick Gallery. Today, Harold Krisel’s prints, paintings, and sculpture can be found where it rightly belongs, in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the British Museum in England, Bibliotheque National in Paris, and—of course—hanging on the walls of his beloved family’s homes.

Taylor Quist