Under the Sign of Gemini

An Interview with Sidney B. Felsen

Gemini Graphic Editions Limited is the venue of choice when the greatest artists in America want to make prints and multiples. The brainchild of aesthetically inclined ex-CPA Sidney Felsen, Gemini has published work by a constellation of the most legendary postwar artists: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly, among others. Felsen, who built Gemini up from a local Los Angeles concern to an institution of national importance, is over 90 and still going strong.

 Jasper Johns working at Gemini, 1969.

Photograph by Sidney B. Felsen © 1974. Jasper Johns working at Gemini.

Octavian Report: Can you tell us how you got into the print-publishing business?

Sidney Felsen: I grew up completely of the philosophy that I wanted to be an accountant. I was living in Los Angeles, working as a CPA. But I no longer wanted to be a public accountant. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was confused. I had a girlfriend at the time who I liked a lot, and when I'd go to pick her up at the house, they had these things on the wall. And I looked at them and they looked strange to me. I thought they were terrible. But I liked her and I liked her family, and so I started saying to myself, “These are really good people and if they like that, why do they like that?”

So I started reading about art. I read The Moon and Sixpence, and I decided I should go to art galleries and see what goes on. I started walking into some local galleries. Didn’t know anybody, had no connection. I ended up asking myself, “Well, why don’t I just paint for fun?” I took painting lessons from a man called George Chin, private lessons, and then at the Friedrich Kann school. I was terribly embarrassed about what I was doing. I thought these other people were artists, you know, so I'd go to the back of the room and hide behind the big canvas in front of me. I eventually started feeling I was doing okay, and I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll really go to a school.” I did -- on nights and weekends. Chouinard was the name of the school, and it was run by Madame Chouinard. I was there for several years. I took painting, drawing. Madame Chouinard sold the school to Walt Disney; afterwards it became CalArts. California Institute of the Arts. And it moved out to the outlying district. I went to another school, and I started falling in love with ceramics and wheel-throwing, porcelain. I went to night art school for probably 20 years, often accompanied by closest friend Stanley Grinstein. My accounting practice was becoming more and more people in the art scene, dealers, collectors, even some of my classmates.

I had a couple clients that were art galleries, and one of them was importing prints from Europe into the United States: Picasso and Miró, Chagall, Klee. At that time Stanley and his wife were seriously collecting contemporary art. One day I said to him, “You know, they’ve got these workshops in Europe where artists go and make prints. That’d be fun.” Neither of us knew anything about printing. I said, “You know, we could build a collection for ourselves.” He said, “Look, I don't know anything about it, but if you want to do it, I’ll certainly do it with you.”

But in order to start a print studio you have to have a printer. In Los Angeles there was a man, Kenneth Tyler, and he had a quality workshop for hire. If you were an artist and you wanted to have prints made, you went to Tyler. The name of his shop was Gemini. Gemini Limited. We talked to him, and he was failing financially. He was trying to get UCLA to take over Gemini Limited and it wasn’t happening. Stanley and I said to each other, “Well, why don’t we get together with Ken.” The Grinsteins had a Christmas Eve party in 1965. We invited Tyler. We sat there, the three of us, and we talked about what we wanted to do. We wanted to create a publishing house: you invite the artist, the artist does the work, you own the work, you sell it to the public, you pay the artist a royalty. We proposed that to him, and he was interested, and I think realistically we were the only game in town for him. In February of 1966, Gemini G.E.L., which is Graphics Editions Limited, started. That was it. We started it with pure innocence. Wanted to do it for fun. Had no idea it could be a business. What we were saying to each other was, “How much money do you think we’ll have to keep putting into this every year to keep the doors opened?”

In the first four years of Gemini’s life, Bob Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, and Ken Price all worked with us. We were a smash success.

OR: Was it immediately profitable?

Felsen: Yes. But Grinstein and I didn’t make any money off of it because we paid Tyler a salary and we put all other profits back in. We bought better equipment. We needed more space. There was a property about four blocks down the street, a beautiful property, so we bought it. We kept putting all the profit we could into the business, and in the fourth year I turned over my accounting practice to my partner and started at Gemini full time.

OR: Who was the first artist you worked with?

Felsen: Joseph Albers. He was the head of the School of Fine Arts at Yale. And he was the first artist to work with us. Second artist was Man Ray. He had a major retrospective at the LA County Museum of Art. Stanley was a trustee there, and he arranged to have Man Ray stay at his house, and Man Ray  started hanging around the shop.

OR: What was he like?

Felsen: He was very funny, a wiseass -- but serious at the same time. He would hang around the shop, and one day he said, “Why don’t I do something here?” He did two silkscreens, one in Plexiglas and one lithograph. He made what he called “rayograghs,” and they morphed into being editions. In those early days, we were chasing all the old abstract expressionists. We went to Edward Hopper and Hans Hoffmann, Mark Rothko, de Kooning. But they didn't want to make prints. It wasn’t their thing. Eventually we got friendly with Bob Rauschenberg, who was coming to Los Angeles fairly regularly, and we asked him to come and work with us. Bob more or less pointed us in the direction where Gemini ended up going.