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Sidney Felsen, co-founder of Gemini G.E.L., dies at 99

Sidney B. Felsen, beloved co-founder of the seminal Los Angeles printmaking workshop Gemini G.E.L., died of renal failure on Sunday at his home in L.A. He was 99.

“Richard Serra once said, ‘Sidney prefers to hurry slowly,’ and we think that captured him perfectly,” Felsen’s wife, Joni Weyl, and daughter, Suzanne Felsen, wrote in a statement to The Times.

Felsen and the late Stanley Grinstein, USC fraternity brothers, helped spark a nationwide printmaking revival in the mid-’60s when they started Gemini G.E.L. as a humble place for local artists to socialize, exchange ideas and create.

The Melrose Avenue artists’ workshop and lithography publisher, which opened its doors in 1966, took off fast, attracting the likes of Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein and others, who produced pieces of modern printmaking history there over the years.

Serra, who made more than 320 prints at Gemini, called Felsen a muse in tribute remarks at the Hammer Gala honoring Felsen and Weyl in 2004. Serra died earlier this year.

“Printmaking is a cult performed by practitioners who suffer from occasional anxiety, who demand guidance and support and patient collaboration, who need a witness to watch the process from the start, a witness who understands how the mark can be transformed and reproduced to evoke the printed image,” Serra said. “It is impossible to accomplish this transformation without a guide, an overseer, a producer. Sidney Felsen is all of that. … I prefer to think of Sidney as a muse rather than a producer; the assimilation of his aura a stimulant to the process … [and] taking photographs is Sidney’s way of watching over us, not watching us.”

Known for its openness to innovation, Gemini drew artists from both coasts, who often gathered there for art openings or for raucous, all-night parties at the Grinstein home. The sense of community facilitated relationships among artists and helped give form to an otherwise loose and geographically sprawling, nascent L.A. art scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

When Gemini turned 50 years old — and Felsen was 92 — the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a survey exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., of Gemini works from 1966 to 2014. “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” illustrated Felsen and Grinstein’s vision of boundary-pushing experimentation in the printmaking field as well as the unusual collaboration at Gemini between artists and printers.

But early on, Felsen said, he never imagined his little print workshop would amount to such importance.

“It was innocence,” the soft-spoken Felsen told The Times in 2016. “We thought it was gonna be a hobby, that it would be fun to hang around the artists, maybe build up a collection.”

Stanley Grinstein, left, and Sidney Felsen in 2006 inside Felsen’s Gemini office featuring his photographs on the wall.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Born in Chicago on Sept. 3, 1924, to parents who owned and operated a grocery store, Felsen’s family moved to L.A. for the warm weather when he was a teenager. He had an older sister, the late Shirley Trott. Felsen attended Fairfax High School on Melrose, not far from where Gemini would eventually take root.

Felsen went into the army after high school, where he was stationed in Europe. When he returned to the U.S., he attended USC as an accounting major.

Before opening Gemini, Felsen — a notably dapper dresser who fancied a wide-brimmed straw Panama hat and wire-rimmed glasses in his later years — worked as an accountant by day. But he also took painting and ceramics classes for fun in the evenings at Chouinard Art Institute, which would later become CalArts.

He met his first wife, the longtime, former gallerist Rosamund Felsen, through friends at a party in the late ‘50s. The two had one daughter, Suzanne Felsen, in 1961. Rosamund also had three children from a previous marriage, whom Felsen helped to raise. The two divorced in the mid-’70s.

Felsen met and fell in love with Joni Weyl, who worked in the sales department at Gemini G.E.L., in the late-‘70s. They married in the mid-’80s.

Joni Weyl and Sidney Felsen stand in front of their portrait.

Joni Weyl and Sidney Felsen stand with David Hockney’s portrait “Sid and Joni Seated at Table” (2005). The work was part of the 2018 LACMA exhibition “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life.”

(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Felsen was also a skilled amateur photographer. He received a Kodak Retina for his bar mitzvah in 1937, and it set off a lifelong passion for the art of photography. Over more than a half-century of running Gemini, Felsen also photographed the artists who streamed through. He shot on a rangefinder camera, because of its silent, unobtrusive shutter, as he captured artists at work and at play.

In 2003, Felsen published a collection of those photographs in the coffee table book “The Artist Observed.” In 2018, Gemini presented “The Artist Observed,” an exhibition of more than 200 of Felsen’s images, culled from about 2,000 negatives.

“For probably the first 10 years, it was really just working with artists that you knew were good artists and it was an honor to work with them,” Felsen told The Times when the exhibition opened. “But then later on you start realizing, ‘Wow this is art history that’s all around us.’ It warms your heart.”

Felsen came into the Gemini office nearly every day, and actively ran the business, up until a month before his death.

Felsen’s passion for printmaking lives on at Gemini, which today is run by the second generation in both founding families, Ellen and Ayn Grinstein, Weyl and Suzanne Felsen.

“One of the most incredible things I have learned from Gemini is what can be possible through printmaking,” said artist Julie Mehretu in remarks displayed in the exhibition “First Came a Friendship: Sidney B. Felsen and the Artists at Gemini G.E.L.,” currently on view at the Getty Research Institute. “Deeper than that was a way of life that 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.”

Felsen is survived by his wife, Weyl; daughter, Suzanne Felsen; grandson, Hugo Budd; son-in-law, Kevin Swanson; ex-wife, Rosamund; and his stepchildren with Rosamund, Anthony and James Hinderer.


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