Harry N. Abrams, 74, a major publisher of art books in the United States, died Monday at his apartment in New York City following a stroke.

Mr. Abrams, who also had a large private art collection, began publishing art books in 1950. He went into the field after a career in advertising and conventional publishing -- he was an executive of the Book-of-the-Month Club from 1936 to 1950 -- at a time when no other publishing companies in this country specialized in art books.

He recalled in an interview in 1978 that Bennett Cerf, who headed Random House, bet him$100 that he would either go broke or begin publishing other kinds of books within three years.

"I'd have been glad to pay the $100 and go on to something else if it would have helped," Mr. Abrams said of the first five years of his operation. w

"Every day we were fighting not to go bankrupt."

By the end of the 1950s, however, it was estimated that Mr. Abrams had sold more than 50 million color reproductions in the United States. At the time of his death, he was regarded as the man who had sold more art books to Americans than anyone else.

His books included modern painters as well as masters. He described the problem of making a profit on art books as one of keeping the per-copy price down by selling large numbers of them. At that, some of this books were expensive. In 1970, he produced a a book of Norman Rockwell paintings that sold 65,000 copies at $75 a copy.

Mr. Abrams' publishing firm was called Harry N. Abrams Inc. In 1966, he sold it to The Times Mirror Co., but remained on as president. In 1976, the parent company asked him to step aside. He then started a new company, Abbeville Press.

Mr. Abrams was born in London, England. When he was 8, he and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. After finishing high school, young Abrams attended the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design and New York University.

He worked in his father's shoe store and also began working for an advertising agency. He was art director of an advertising firm at the time he joined the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1936. There he served successively as art director, production manager and director until starting his own publishing company in 1950.

Mr. Abrams' survivors include his wife, the former Nina Bolotoff, whom he married in 1932, of New York City; two sons, Michael David of London, and Robert Elihu of Katona, N.Y., and four grandchildren.