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The Stellar Legacy of L.A.'s Gemini G.E.L. Printmakers | City of the Seekers

Despite its name, Gemini G.E.L. was founded by two sagittariuses and a virgo.

In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables SoCal artists to make creative work as part of their practices.

In 1966, Gemini G.E.L., an acronym for Graphic Editions Limited, opened in Los Angeles as a lithography studio, but quickly expanded to become a one-stop artists' print-shop and publishing house that could meet a variety of creative needs. Those who've come through its doors read like a who's who of contemporary art: John Baldessari, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra are just a few who've entrusted Gemini with their complex projects. So what exactly makes Gemini G.E.L. so attractive to so many important artists?

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Jasper Johns, Black Numeral Series (0–9), 1968/70, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the 2006 Collectors Committee, art © Jasper Johns and Gemini G.E.L./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Gemini G.E.L. Photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

The answers lie in LACMA's exhibition The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L., which features 16 series by 16 different artists, all working throughout Gemini G.E.L.'s stellar history. They represent just a fraction of the 74 different artists and 150 printers who've produced well over 2,000 editions in the 50 years since Gemini G.E.L. first opened.

All the 127 prints in the exhibition are from different series, each shown in its entirety. But as co-curator Leslie Jones tells The Creators Project, "The 'impulse' part comes from the drive to make series at this particular print workshop. 70% of what comes out of Gemini G.E.L. are series, which is interesting and unusual. That could be attributed to the fact that a lot of these artists were coming in from out of town in the early years, the New York artists, and they would stay."

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Roy Lichtenstein, Reclining Nude, 1980, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Dorothy Lichtenstein, © 1980 Estate of Roy Lichtenstein / Gemini G.E.L., photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Many artists have actually worked at Gemini G.E.L. and not necessarily in their studios, as part of an intimate collaboration with the master printers. These encounters are documented in touching photos throughout the show, with exhibition didactics including the names of the master printers in a rare and admirable display of proper credit. As co-curator Naoko Takahatake says, "Gemini is celebrated for fostering a true spirit of collaboration between the artists, the printer, the fabricators, and their owners."

Highlights of The Serial Impulse include Jasper Johns' Black Numeral Series, and a series of 12 lithographs by Claes Oldenburg rendered over the course of two months in Los Angeles. But perhaps the most dramatic piece is Robert Rauschenberg's Booster, a full-scale x-ray of himself wearing nothing but boots, covered with a screenprint of the astrological chart for 1967. "The time that it was made, in '67, it was the largest hand-pulled lithograph ever made," Jones says. "So it was quite a technological feat in many respects."

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Claes Oldenburg, Untitled (City as Alphabet), 1968, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © 1968. Claes Oldenburg and Gemini G.E.L., photo courtesy Gemini G.E.L.

But the real star behind Gemini G.E.L. is the spry, immaculately dressed, 92-year-old Sidney B. Felsen, who originally co-founded the workshop with Stanley Grinstein and Kenneth Tyler. It's Felsen who unravels the mystery behind the printmaker's zodiacal name. "In 1965, the Gemini space capsule was launched, and it was just about the time that the shop began," Felsen explains, adding somewhat ironically: "Gemini was formed by two Sagittariuses and a Virgo. I think the only artist that worked with us who was a Gemini is Ellsworth Kelly. I'm a Virgo. In fact, a lot of printers at Gemini are Virgos. You have to be very orderly."

Felsen was born in Chicago, but grew up in Los Angeles. He studied accounting in college, and became a CPA after graduation. He quickly became fascinated with art, and spent the next 15 years studying it in night school. As an accountant, he had worked with artists and galleries, so he combined his passions, which helped further Gemini G.E.L.'s mission.

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Robert Rauschenberg, Booster, 1967, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the Times Mirror Company, © 2016 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, photo © 2016 Museum Associates/LACMA

Unlike with other printmakers, the vibe at Gemini G.E.L. has always been about fostering creativity in a characteristically laid-back, Californian way. "If you're really a creator, you have to have total freedom," Felsen says. "I mean, you can't say to somebody, 'Look, you've got ten days to work, or you've got $10,000 worth of material.' You just say to somebody, 'Here it is. Do what you want.' And we've really practiced that forever. I've encouraged the artists to stay as long as they're willing, and that's really why the theme of this exhibition is the idea of artists coming to Gemini to work in series. You can come to a print shop and do one print, or something like that, but you don't have the chance to unwind. It takes a few days for that to even begin to happen, and when it does, the work is better."

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Josef Albers, White Line Square VII, 1966, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Gemini G.E.L., Ltd., © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

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David Hockney working in the Gemini G.E.L. studio, 1973 © Daniel B. Freeman

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Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, D, 1984, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., © Vija Celmins

The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L., organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is on view at LACMA September 11, 2016 - January 2, 2017. Visit Gemini G.E.L.'s website here.

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