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Under the Sign of Gemini: An Interview with Sidney Felsen

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.

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.

You know, before Gemini started I thought that artists wore berets. And they worked at getting famous. Once they did, I thought, they lived off of it, they coasted, they became difficult people. I don’t think that at all now. These people I’ve mentioned are the greatest artists of our time. And they work everyday. Right now Ellsworth’s 91, Jasper’s 84, Oldenburg’s 85, Frank Gehry’s 85. What do they want to do? They want to go in the studio. They want to make something good, make something better than they did before.

OR: Do you find that the best artists are good managers of their own careers?

Felsen: Yes. But in the early days, the artists who worked with Gemini didn’t want to know about business, they didn’t want to know about their income taxes. If you were going to do their taxes, they said, “Just do it. Don’t tell me. And I don’t want to know about this or that. I just want to make art.” That all changed. I learned in my CPA days that the best clients I had were the ones that really wanted to be involved in decisions and wanted to know everything they could about their business. So I’d say, yes, they are good managers. They all have lawyers. I live in Hollywood, so everybody has a business manager.

OR: You spoke about artists in their 80s and 90s still going into the studio. What’s your general view of the more mature work of artists?

Felsen: Let’s take Picasso. For the first seven years of Gemini’s life people used to say, “Oh, Picasso used to make all that great work. He should have stopped.” But it’s really good work later on. When I look at Ellsworth Kelly — he had a show last year, and I thought those things were great. I don’t see a drop off as far as quality or ability. I don’t think any of them want to keep making the same thing. They’re always looking for a new avenue to travel. When they come to our place, they never want to do the same thing they did before. Some of them don’t even want to look at what they did before. They just come in and they want to start something new.

OR: Do you find most of the greats know their art history?

Felsen: Definitely. It’s one of the things that a lot of artists that I’m around feel younger artists are turning their backs to, which is not so smart. I think history is phenomenally important. I’m around one young artist who I think is amazingly successful. Her name is Julie Mehretu. Julie reads all the time. She reminds me of when I was around Jasper and Bob in the earlier days. They’d always be interested in history and reading and reading and learning and learning.

OR: It sounds as though, from the beginning, you felt there was something historic going on at Gemini. How do you think you and your work will be viewed historically?

Felsen: In 1982, the National Gallery established the Gemini Archive. They have one example of everything we’ve ever done. They’ve done three major exhibitions so far; in October they’re going to celebrate our 50th anniversary. They’ve done two physical catalogs. They have an online catalog of everything we’ve done. They think of it as a scholarly operation. The idea being that scholars, as they put it, 50 or 100 years from now will come to Washington, D.C., to study what that workshop in Los Angeles did. And I’d love to think it could continue. But Europe had a lot of workshops in the late 19th century into the early 20th century, and none of them ever survived. So for me, wanting Gemini to continue would be the number-one thing.

As to how Gemini will be remembered: certainly as a workshop that facilitated many of the most accomplished artists of our time. It dazzles me sometimes to see what work has been done at Gemini. Roy Lichtenstein did 100 editions. Bob Rauschenberg did 255 editions. Ellsworth Kelly has done almost 300 editions. Richard Serra’s done 250 editions. And these are major bodies of work. Though in the art world, there’s a pecking order: painting and sculpture, drawing and prints. I’m prejudiced in favor of prints. So many people feel that prints are reproduction photographs of paintings or drawings. That’s what they think a print is. But these artists come in and they’ll spend — Roy Lichtenstein would always spend four to six weeks every time he came. Every day, working, working, working. It’s a tremendous amount of effort on the artist’s part. So why do they do it at all? I’d say one of the bigger reasons is it’s a challenge. They never want to do the same thing again. They’re in their own studio with their own one or two studio assistants privately for 51 weeks of the year, and the 52nd week they may come to Gemini. And all of a sudden there’s eight printers there, and they may have been here two years ago, but they’re back again. It’s new again, and they want to make something new. It’s an excitement to them.

The current group of younger artists, they’re not so interested in printmaking. I attribute that to the history they don’t study and thus don’t realize that all these great artists spent much of their time on printmaking. It’s a different thing to make a drawing or to make a painting, make a print. It’s a challenge.