Frank Joseph Zirbel

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Frank Joseph Zirbel (born 1947) is an American artist.

Frank Joseph Zirbel, photograph copyright by Paul Natkin


Frank Joseph Zirbel was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1947. In 1970, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with a bachelor of arts degree in Philosophy. His first group show dates back to 1973 at Edgewood Orchard Gallery in Door County, Wisconsin. More than 70 group and several one-man shows have followed. Since 1977, he has made Chicago his home base.[1]

Zirbel moved to New York in November, 1986 (upon encouragement by his East Village N.Y. art dealer, Joseph Sipos – Helio Gallery).[2] In New York, he resided in the Times Square Hotel, 255 W.43rd St. While in New York he struck up a friendship with the N.Y. artist Chaim Koppleman who let him start using his Soho etching studio as a place to work. In mid-summer 1987, Zirbel returned to Chicago.


Zirbel’s art uses representational imagery within the stylistic modes of figurative expressionism and classical surrealism.[1][3]

He started drawing as a child and is primarily self-taught. His first etchings date to 1978. He started showing art in New York’s East Village in 1985 and for many years thereafter, with twelve N.Y. shows in the late 1980s. Also, Zirbel started oil painting and working in color during this time period, encouraged to do so by his New York dealer who invited him to be in a 1986 exhibition of paintings.[1]

Zirbel has claimed that his initial drawing style came together in the second half of the 1970s while he was working the midnight shift in admissions at the Elgin Mental Health Center, Elgin, Illinois.[2] Here, having previously worked on all the various wards, and with extra time on his hands between admissions, he created unique black-and-white ink drawings inspired by the psychotic and the insane.[4] During his employ at the hospital, Zirbel also made a 16mm documentary film titled "Duck Eggs and the Miniature Rooster"[5] containing an interview with Hermine Pakrovsky, one of the hospital's revolving-door patients. The film made its television debut on Chicago's local PBS affiliate in 1977. Zirbel's dark novel "The Idiot's Grasp" was inspired by his work at the hospital. The novel is now housed in the Museum of Modern Art's artists book collection.[6] In late 1998, Chattanooga, Tennessee art dealer Angela Usrey discovered these works and consigned a few, awarding Zirbel a show at her gallery. In January, 1999, she exhibited these works at New York’s Outsider Art Fair. Usrey named them the "Asylum Drawings."[2] Her Tanner Hill Gallery continued exhibiting this series at the N.Y. Outsider art fair through 2012.

Zirbel often has worked in series-related art. One such series, "The Messenger Street Drawing Series" (early 1990s) was inspired by the urban images he saw while working as a bicycle messenger in Chicago.[4] In November 1995, a month after Zirbel quit being a messenger, the Chicago photographer, Mark Debernardi, did a raw video interview with him in his studio reflecting on Zirbel's five year stint on the street. Included in the piece are some works from the messenger drawing series itself.[7] A 1997 exhibition of these drawings at the Judith Racht Gallery, Chicago, garnered Zirbel Chicago Magazine’s selection as Chicago’s best undiscovered artist for that year.[8]

Another set of works revolving around a single theme, Zirbel's "Influencing Artists Series",[9] expanded into etchings, paintings, collage and assemblage and explores the faces and personalities of those who inspired him. In 2005, Susan Aurinko’s Flatfile Galleries, Chicago, presented a surrealist show featuring several paintings from this series, including portraits of Luis Bunuel, Rene Magritte, and an extensive etching series on Edgar Allan Poe.

In late 2015, The Art Center - Highland Park invited Zirbel to exhibit many of his found object sculptures in a group show. 2016 witnessed a drawing of his being chosen for the Williams College Museum of Art's Walls Collection, Williamstown, MA. In 2017, two portraits of Nelson Algren by Zirbel (a painting/collage and a monotype) were purchased by collectors and loaned to the Nelson Algren Museum of Miller Beach, Gary, Ind. for an indefinite time period.

On YouTube, Zirbel's many films and videos can be seen on his film channel, Frank Joseph Zirbel.[10] Recent additions include two films, "The Human Riddle," and "The Mask and the Mirror," from the compilation, "Seven Gnarled Tales of the Unholy," based on drawings he did after Pieter Bruegel's "Seven Deadly Sins" engravings. This set of seven drawings is titled, "Quicksand and Quagmire." The film is an American/German co-production with animation and camera work completed in Munich by Mike Hans Steffl.

Public collections[edit]

  • Museum of Modern Art - Artists Books Collection / New York, NY[11]
  • Nelson Algren Museum of Miller Beach / 541 S. Lake St. / Gary, IN
  • Williams College Museum of Art - Walls Collection / Williamstown, MA[12]
  • Birmingham Museum of Art / Birmingham, AL
  • Blues Heaven Foundation / 2120 S. Michigan Avenue / Chicago, IL
  • Thorek Memorial Hospital / 850 E. Irving Park Road / Chicago, IL

In addition to his art work, Zirbel is an accomplished musician on the electric bass guitar. Under the moniker MENTAL INSECT, he has released multiple CDs. In the first half of the 1980s, he was a member of the Chicago new wave band, Bohemia (1979-1984). The band toured the United States in 1983 and ’84. In its lifetime, it released five records, one of them a full album: "Deviations," with a Zirbel drawing on the cover.[1][4]


"Frank Zirbel...a self taught artist admits to a fascination...with subconscious imagery;these pieces are...intriguing, grotesque, yet beautifully rendered."[2] author: Ann Nichols

" a talented visual artist...Walking Woman...displays Zirbel's remarkable talent for arresting expressive forms."[3]

"...Zirbel has a second passion. Over the last 15 years he's produced a dazzling array of photographs, prints, and more recently, paintings--dense, textured works that reflect a chaotic world beset by violence and greed."[13]

"Much of his visual work explodes with grotesque imagery on found surfaces...He creates from the ruins of civilization...the images portray a strange world but they derive from the found elements."[14]

"Best undiscovered artist...Frank Joseph's on the visual front that he's poised for a major breakthrough...last summer in a show at Judith Racht's Southport Gallery, his bold paintings and drawings--these last executed on scraps of found paper...created a sensation."[8]


  1. ^ a b c d "Zirbel, Frank -".
  2. ^ a b c d Chattanooga Free Press, 11/22/1998
  3. ^ a b Sherman, Mary CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, Title: "Zirbel's works examine female form", July 15, 1988, Page 17
  4. ^ a b c New City, 6/6/1991
  5. ^ Frank Joseph Zirbel (18 March 2014). "Duck Eggs and the Miniature Rooster" – via YouTube.
  6. ^ "New York Art Resources Consortium /MoMA".
  7. ^ Frank Joseph Zirbel (3 July 2015). ""Interview: Mark Debernardi/Zirbel - November 1995"" – via YouTube.
  8. ^ a b Chicago Magazine, Best of Issue, Title/Category "Best Undiscovered Artist", December, 1997, Page 86.
  9. ^ "Shock Art".
  10. ^ "Frank Joseph Zirbel". YouTube.
  11. ^ "New York Art Resources Consortium/MoMA".
  12. ^ "WALLS Evolves: Expanding a Living Collection". Williams College Museum of Art.
  13. ^ Johnson, Geoff [1] Issue: June 10, 1993
  14. ^ Dinello, Dan, Alternative Press/New City" Title: "Mirror to Madness", Issue No. 6, Volume 41, 1991, Page 11