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To Be ‘Silent and Invisible’: How Gemini G.E.L. Cofounder Sidney Felsen Got Up Close to Artists Over 50 Years


In 2007, Ohio-based artist Ann Hamilton was in Los Angeles working on a sculpture, titled shell , in which she suspended a woman’s peacoat made from printer felt on a black wire hanger. She had been invited to the city by local print shop Gemini G.E.L. and its publisher Sidney Felsen. Hamilton, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow best-known for warping a range of materials from fleece to stone, attributes the unique origins and final form of shell to her time with Gemini.




Resembling armor without a body underneath, shell is made from felt etching blankets from the shop, and, amid a writer’s strike in Los Angeles, she collaborated with a film industry designer in need of work, who was enlisted through Felsen’s connections. The work came to be almost serendipitously “because this is Hollywood, and because of Sidney Felsen,” Hamilton told writer Joan Simon in a 2008 interview .




Enlisting established artists, like Hamilton, to create new work is perhaps what Felsen, now 99, is most widely known for. Having founded Gemini in 1966 with his fraternity brother and art collector Stanley Grinstein, Felsen is now the subject of a monographic exhibition, on view through July 7 at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, that mines 50-years-worth of his photographic archive. The exhibition’s title puts it more succinctly: “First Came a Friendship: Sidney B. Felsen and the Artists at Gemini G.E.L.” The exhibition’s curator Naoko Takahatake selected images that Felsen took over more than five decades, culled from more than 70,000 images, donated to the GRI in 2019 by Jack Shear, the partner of Ellsworth Kelly, another frequent Gemini collaborator.




Alongside Tamarind Lithography Workshop and Cirrus Editions (both in Los Angeles) and Universal Limited Art Editions (in New York), Gemini G.E.L. was a part of a budding wave of art printers established in the 1960s and ’70s that attracted top artists as collaborators. Among them were Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, and Roy Lichtenstein who could work through some of their most heady ideas in a different medium than they became famous for. In 1999, Claudine Ise wrote for the Los Angeles Times , that Felsen molded Gemini into “an arterial channel between the Los Angeles and New York art worlds.”




“When he really started getting serious about photography, he switched to a Leica and he preferred the rangefinder because of the quiet shutter,” Takahatake told ARTnews in a recent interview.




Felsen, according to Takahatake, wanted to be a fly on the wall, preferring to be unseen and unheard to avoid disrupting their artistic processes. “He said the two words he felt he needed to live by were silent and invisible. One of the greatest compliments he felt someone could pay him was, when they would say: I didn’t even realize that you were there,” Takahatake said.




In the mid-’60s, Felsen brought in artists primarily on his own instinct, mailing postcards that acted as cold invitations to collaborate. That process would lead him to that building out a personal network with some of the mid-20th century’s biggest creative forces. Critics and historians who have analyzed Gemini’s peak years have emphasized how Felsen and Grinstein, who died in 2014, gave artists unusual amount of freedom to work, seemingly without any financial or material restrictions. A 2010 Artforum review of a Robert Rauschenberg show detailed how critical the shop was to the artist and his peers, providing an atmosphere that gave them “free rein and seemingly unlimited resources.”




There were few other artists who produced as much under Felsen’s tutelage as Rauschenberg. In a 2013 interview, Felsen recalled first meeting the artist, who was looking to make a full-body print using a medical X-Ray, at an airport in 1967. “He wanted one plate—6 feet—of his whole body. We found out there is no such thing in the United States—except that Eastman Kodak in Rochester had a six-foot machine,” Felsen said in the 2013 interview. For another project Felsen took Rauschenberg to a Los Angeles Times printing facility to scour through metal type barrels for material; it was one of some 50 times Rauschenberg came to the shop over the next three decades. Felsen balanced being a close friend, while giving Rauschenberg the space to ideate, often watching in awe at the speed of Rauschenberg’s creative spurts. “He never looked back at his work,” Felsen said.




Because Felsen sought to capture the print shop’s private moments, he never intended to publish his archive of images, which lined the studio’s walls. Until 2003, they went uncatalogued. And that approach allowed him to get a level of candid access that most journalists would dream of. “I can’t work in front of people,” Tacita Dean, a Turner Prize–winning artist who works primarily in photography and film, told the Getty for an essay accompanying the show . “It’s another eye in the room and the sense that somebody’s watching you. But Sidney’s photographs don’t have that.”




There’s a sense of a palpable joy in Felsen’s photographs, in which now famous artists resemble students at play, their expressions mostly candid and unserious. In one, David Hockney tacks drawings of his inner circle to Gemini’s walls, while in another, Richard Serra keeps his heads down, pouring black paint on the floor. “I think something that is quite notable about Gemini is the fact that they had to foster these long-term relationships with artists—it was by invitation,” Takahatake said.




“A lot of my friend were artists or just collectors,” Felsen said in the 2013 interview, describing how he’d put aside his career as an accountant to work with artists. Initially, he focused on LA artists, but he soon found himself nearly at the center of the global art world. In 1966, through chance, Man Ray, ever an enigma of an artist, came to Gemini when he had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Surrealist had recently relocated from Paris to LA, focusing on commissioned photographs for fashion magazines; the museum arranged for him to stay at Grinstein’s house, bringing him into Gemini’s circle.




Decades later, with a close-knit yet expansive network, Felsen continued to run the shop until 2018, at the age of 93, always with the guiding principle, as Takahatake put it, of “how to be a good friend.”

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