Artist Harold Garde at an exhibit in June at Cove Street Arts in Portland. The New York native and abstract expressionist painter moved to Maine in 1983 and produced some of his best known work here. Garde died this week at age 99. Courtesy of Elissa Garde

Artist Harold Garde had technically retired when he moved to Maine in 1983, but in many ways his career was just starting.

The New York native experienced arguably his most productive period in the ’80s and ’90s from his waterfront studio in Belfast, where he painted bold and provocative abstract pieces. He died Tuesday in Florida, where he had been living part time for the last two decades, at the age of 99.

“He also was the center in so many ways of the Midcoast art community,” said Suzette McAvoy, former curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum and former director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. “His house became a gathering place, and he was a mentor to so many people.”

Garde was well known in the American art scene both for his abstract expressionist work and for developing the strappo technique that combined painting and printmaking.

“There was something magical about that man,” said Elissa Garde, one of his four children. “And he loved Maine. He had been painting for a long time before coming here, but his work absolutely exploded.”

His paintings are part of the permanent collections at several museums around the country, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in Maine, including the Portland Museum of Art, the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art and the Bates College Museum of Art.


He didn’t slow down in his later years either. He continued to paint and show his work, at Waterfall Arts in Belfast and most recently at a retrospective exhibit this summer at Cove Street Arts gallery in Portland.

His daughter, who lives in Belfast, was nervous when he decided to make the trip from Florida.

“I wasn’t sure he could handle it because he was quite frail,” she said. “But when they got him to the gallery and put him in front of a room full of people, all of a sudden he came alive. He was amazingly articulate and present.

“I think that’s why he lived so long, because what he did was so essential, and it fed him.”

Kelley Lehr, co-owner of Cove Street Arts, said when she and her partner, John Danos, opened the gallery in 2019, they were looking for artists to meet.

“I had never heard of Harold, and I don’t even remember what I searched but his work came up and it was like ‘Oh my God,’ we need to get him in here,” she said.


They met him in his Belfast studio, and after the formal part ended, Garde pulled out a bottle of fine scotch that they shared.

Lehr said although Garde took his work seriously, he didn’t take himself too seriously. He wasn’t entitled or boastful.

“He was truly one of the most inspiring people I’ve met,” she said.

Harold Garde, “Untitled Work on Paper No. 150,” strappo on paper, 5″ x 7″ (from the Abstract Sighting series)

Alan Crichton, one of the founders of Waterfall Arts, said Garde “just drew people to him.”

Garde was born in 1923 in New York City to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. After high school, he attended City College of New York but left to join the U.S. Air Force.

He served from 1943-45 during World War II. When he returned, he went to art school at the University of Wyoming on the GI bill. It seemed an unlikely place, but there were three teachers there – each of whom had left Europe – who would become mentors and who were major forces in 20th century American art: abstract artist George McNeil, surrealist Leon Kelly and Ilya Bolotowsky, a geometric abstractionist painter.


Garde returned to New York to complete his master’s degree at Columbia and then entered the city’s burgeoning arts scene alongside artists like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

But Garde was a family man, too. He and his first wife, Mimi Rosenberg, had four children, and he worked as an interior designer and later as a teacher to support them. He still painted and absorbed himself in the culture, if only on a part-time basis.

“He got to spend time in Rothko’s studio,” his daughter said. “He wanted to be a part of that scene, and he was.”

Garde and Rosenberg divorced in 1977, and he married writer Barbara Kramer five years later.

They were looking to leave New York and wanted a quieter place to settle, where he could paint and she could write. Elissa Garde said the couple had friends on the Midcoast already and knew they would be supported artistically.

“They thought they could live cheaper here,” she joked.


The move north was pivotal in his painting, as he started to gravitate more toward vibrant colors that matched the natural landscape. Maine is also where Garde developed a technique, known as strappo, where he would mix acrylic paints on a piece of glass and when they dried, he could peel the creations off and apply them to paper. From there, he would layer them until he was satisfied with the result.

“He never compromised on his artistic intentions,” said McAvoy, who curated exhibits of Garde’s work both at the Farnsworth and CMCA. “He made very powerful and sometimes uncomfortable images that I think spoke to the human condition in all its forms.”

Harold Garde, “Self Portrait as a Stranger” (1987), acrylic on canvas, 66″ x 44″

Nancy Davidson, curator at the Maine Jewish Museum and a former gallery owner, said she was among the first to exhibit his work in Portland.

“He became a good friend over 45 years,” she said.

His longevity matched other artists who found creative fulfillment in Maine, like Lois Dodd, Alex Katz and Andrew Wyeth.

“It was always about what’s next,” McAvoy said. “His best painting was the one that was in his head.”

His daughter said she used to think that people were born with artistic abilities.

“When I heard about his upbringing, I was always surprised about him becoming a painter,” Elissa Garde said. “But it was a choice. He said he needed to define himself and wanted to be part of the community of art and artists, and that’s what he chose.”

A celebration of Garde’s life is planned for June 7, what would have been his 100th birthday, in Belfast.

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