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Sidney Felsen Dies at 99

Sidney Felsen. Photo: Gemini G.E.L.

Sidney Felsen, a cofounder of pathbreaking printmaking workshop Gemini G.E.L., died of renal failure on June 9 at his home in Los Angeles. He was ninety-nine. Felsen, alongside his first wife, Rosamund Felsen; Stanley and Elyse Grinstein; and Kenneth Tyler, established Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in 1966. The workshop quickly gained a reputation for experimentation, collaborating early on with such heavy hitters as Josef Albers, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. An amateur photographer, Felsen over a span of fifty-eight years chronicled the artists and their doings at the workshop through more than 70,000 photographs, producing a time capsule showing the Los Angeles art scene and offering insight into the international art world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The photos and Gemini’s longevity testified to Felsen’s reputation as a warm personality beloved by the artists with whom he worked. “One of the most incredible things I have learned from Gemini is what can be possible through printmaking,” said Julie Mehretu in a statement on learning of Felsen’s death. “Deeper than that was a way of life Sidney taught me: how to love, how to enjoy life, how to work hard, and how to live that whole life with a form of grace.”

Sidney Felsen was born on September 3, 1924, in Chicago. His parents, who were grocers, moved the family to LA when he was fourteen. Following a post–high school stint in the army air corps, Felsen enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he studied accounting and met Stanley Grinstein when the two joined the same fraternity. Introduced to art by a girlfriend, Felsen began taking night classes in painting and ceramics and pursuing a youthful passion for photography. In 1966, by now working as a CPA and married to Rosamund Felsen, he suggested to Stanley Grinstein, who was then working as an attorney in the entertainment industry, that the pair establish a printing concern.

“Two or three galleries on La Cienega were clients of mine,” he recalled in 2018. “They were importing prints from Europe—the usual suspects, Chagall and Picasso and Miro. I said to Stanley one day, ‘It would be interesting if we started a little workshop here and got to know artists and build a print collection.’ He said, ‘I don’t know anything about it. But if you want to do it, I’ll do it with you.’”

The Felsens and the Grinsteins bought into Gemini Limited, a lithography business run by master printer Tyler out of the back of a frame shop, and changed the name to Gemini G.E.L. Albers was their first collaborator. “Ken had worked with Josef Albers at [his earlier print shop], and they had become friends,” Felsen remembered. “Ken asked Albers if he would help us get started. He would send a shirt to the laundry and get it back with a cardboard in it; then collected the cardboards. He would paint squares, tear it in half, give us half, and keep half. That was our first publishing venture. Albers was very kind to us. He said we didn’t owe him any money, just give him a portion of the edition. So that’s what we did.”

Felsen and his partners next approached Rauschenberg, who would go on to become one of their longest-running collaborators. Rauschenberg in turn introduced them to Oldenburg and Frank Stella. By now known for offering artists what Annie Buckley, writing in 2010 for Artforum, characterized as “free rein and seemingly unlimited resources to make prints and multiples,” the workshop was firmly set on its path of the ensuing decades, during which it continued to innovate in partnership with artists including Tacita Dean, Mehretu, Ed Ruscha, Analia Saban, and Richard Serra. Though the shop is by now legendary, that wasn’t always the case.

“[Prints bring to mind] Rodney Dangerfield,” Felson told Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in a 2009 interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “Prints don’t get no respect. My favorite example is two people come into our booth at an art fair. One says, ‘Look at the beautiful image,’ or ‘that beautiful Baldessari,’ or Serra, and the other one says, ‘Yes, but that’s only a print.’ They both turn around and walk out.

“When I think of the reasons artists make prints, the number one answer is because it’s such a challenge to them. I also think it affords the opportunity to collaborate with others who have an expertise other than their own, and they’re able to merge the two talents to make special works of art.”

Almost from the start, Felsen documented the goings-on at and surrounding Gemini G.E.L., photographing collaborating artists working, vacationing, or attending events. “I’ve had a lot of cases where I sent some pictures to the artist, and they phoned up and said, ‘I didn’t realize you were taking pictures,’” he told the Creative Independent in 2018. “I use a really quiet camera so they don’t hear the shutter.” Some of Felsen’s photos are collected in the 2003 volume The Artist Observed; the entire trove is held in the collection of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, where a selection of them is on view through July 7.

The L.A. Times reported that Felsen actively ran Gemini G.E.L. until the month preceding his death, working as the concern’s administrative manager. Despite the workshop’s many successes and his own cultural contribution, he remained disarmingly modest. “I’m not a printer and there are a lot of things I don’t understand,” he told the Bott Collection in 2018. “But I use my common sense.”

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