Under the Sign of Gemini

An Interview with Sidney B. Felsen

At the time, he was probably 33 or 34 years old. Frank Stella was 28 years old. Jasper Johns was probably 30. Where there was no art market -- as of, you might say, the day before we started -- all of a sudden Life magazine was running big spreads on Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns. We completely timed right into that. We started when that was starting to happen. An art market was developing.

OR: And the artists you mentioned were fairly well-known at that point?

Felsen: By comparison to their current reputations, no, but they were known. In the art scene they were known, and they were getting a fair amount of publicity.

OR: Other than Man Ray and Albers, did you work with any of the European giants?

Felsen: De Kooning did one small sculpture with us. I used to take the train from New York out to East Hampton, and I'd go to his house and talk to him about working with us.

OR: You said before that you think Robert Rauschenberg gave direction to the business.

Felsen: He set the tone. He helped us get Frank Stella, and he somewhat helped us get Claes Oldenburg, and then I got brave and wrote a letter to Jasper Johns and he said yes. Shocking. And we were off and running.

OR: Was he as mercurial then as he is now?

Felsen: Jasper is a fantastically kind human being. The gates are up, you might say, until he knows you. You have to prove yourself, I think, however you want to say it. Once he finds out who you are, he's fine, he's great.

OR:  You talk about this huge collection of artists that all knew each other that were working with you. Do you have any thoughts as to what makes that happen? How do you end up having a moment in time in a place where you have so many creative geniuses working at once?

Felsen: It's a mystery. We're in our 50th year, and there's never been a period like that 1960s period where it all coalesced. There were all these different people of different origins and different philosophies and even different art, but they all came together.

OR: What made Gemini the focal point?

Felsen: A combination of things. Without trying to put this in any particular order, I'd say the first one that comes to mind was the idea of coming to work in Southern California: sunshine, ocean, mountains, palm trees, romance, Hollywood. The artists would talk about it, they’d ask about it. And we did have a sense of high quality. We've always had an attitude from day one. We’ll do anything the artist wants. After coming out of accounting into Gemini, I said, “You can't treat this place like a business and you have to treat it like a business. You have to merge those two ideas and make it work.” You can't say to an artist, “Okay, Jasper, you’ve got three days and $12,000 worth of materials to use.” You invite somebody and say, “You do anything you want.” And we've never in any way edited anybody. We've never told them anything we wanted them to do. They have total freedom.

We have an attitude that the impossible will take a little while. I hear artists say from time to time, “Well, at Gemini they let me do anything I want,” or “They really back me up 100 percent of whatever I wanted to do,” or “They gave me all the freedom I could imagine.” I think that helped. Most of the artists know each other, and so when somebody says, “What about Gemini? You work there.” So I think that helped us. So those were two things. And almost the minute that we started, we would place full-page ads in art magazines and make beautiful literature. Galleries do that, but very few publishers do it. The first series we did was called White Line Squares, by Joseph Albers, and we decided to place a full-page ad for it in the June 1966 Artforum. I carried the copy down to the office of Artforum and I handed it to this kid, and this kid turned out to be Ed Ruscha. He was laying out the ads for Artforum.

OR: You said you can't treat something like Gemini as a business but that you have to treat it as a business. How did you do that while giving artists carte blanche?

Felsen: Gemini’s very neat and clean. It's like a hospital, if you look at the workshop. But scheduling artists -- Roy Lichtenstein, for example, would tell you in June of 1973 that he was going to be out in February of 1974 on February 2, and he’d show up on February 2. But for many others it's a moving target. You make a date: “Maybe February of next year?” You start calling in November: “Can we set a date in February?” “No, I’ll have to do it in March.” You can't say, “No, look, you’ve changed this thing three times. You can't do it again.” You want to change it? Change it a fourth time. Gemini’s a ship and the artist is the captain. And we're the crew. The word used in our industry is “collaboration.” It's really a collaboration between artists and craftspeople. But I always feel the artist has the upper hand.

OR: Who was the easiest artist to deal with and who was the most difficult?

Felsen: They're all my children. And so let me answer it differently. Almost no artist that we've worked with has been difficult. They're just as tough on themselves as they are on us. They're looking for the best that can be done. I never felt an artist was unreasonable because they wanted the best quality. Probably the best answer I can give you is the more accomplished, the more proficient the artist is, the less difficulty you'll have.