Gemini G.E.L. and Mixografia: The printmakers behind the artists

When you see artwork in museums and galleries, does all the credit belong to the artist? A new show at LACMA puts the spotlight on LA's printmakers behind the fine art.

When you look at art in museums and galleries, you might think its the work of one person, the artist. But so often there’s team of skilled technicians behind those artists. A new show at LACMA puts the spotlight on their work. It is called “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” and it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the famed Los Angeles printing house Gemini G.E.L.

Gemini G.E.L. (short for “Graphic Editions Limited”) was founded in 1966 during a renaissance in printmaking. Artists sought to create limited-edition prints of their work because they could produce more work, and it made the pieces more affordable to the American public.

The studio was founded by master printer Ken Tyler, who had worked at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, and Sidney Felsen and Stanley Grinstein, who had become friends as fraternity members at USC. Their wives, Rosamund Felsen and Elyse Grinstein (who passed away earlier this year), were pivotal in the founding and operations of the studio.

Tyler had worked with artist and educator Josef Albers at Tamarind, and Albers’ “White Line Square” series became the first production at Gemini G.E.L. He was followed in 1967 by Rauschenberg, who brought in other contemporary artists: Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Ken Price and Roy Lichtenstein, among many others.

The artists would often stay at the homes of the Felsen and Grinstein families, attend parties at their homes, and they developed close friendships.

The studio continues to work with newer artists, such as Tacita Dean and Julie Mehretu.

Sidney Felsen, now 92, continues to run the studio. The walls of his office are covered with old photos of all the artists who have worked there over the years.

“I think there is a feeling of freedom out here, and the artists came because of a combination of this younger community and the weather. It always sort of tickled me that they come out here somewhat because of sunshine and the ocean and the mountains. And they came in here 8 or 9 in the morning and left at 6 or 7 or 8 at night and never got outside,” he said.

But besides the weather, another reason artists came to LA and to Gemini specifically was for their experimental spirit. In the 1960s, the studio had a can-do approach influenced by the proximity of Hollywood and the aeronautics industry.

“They never wanted to do the same thing twice. Whatever they did last time was gone and they wanted to try something new,” Felsen said. “So they would come in and tell you what they wanted to accomplish or what process they wanted to use. And then if we didn’t know about it we would try to figure it out. We were pulling from our own experimenting or reading or talking to other printers. So we’ve always been very open to anything that was requested.”

And one way they would figure out how to make the sculpture editions out of metal or plastic or wood was to go into prototype shops that were created for the aerospace industry or movie industry or shipbuilding industry. And those little shops would help Gemini figure out how to make a complicated print or sculpture.

An example of Gemini’s pioneering work is Robert Rauschenberg’s “Booster,” created in 1967. He decided to use a life-sized X-ray portrait of himself combined with an astrological chart and images of athletes, a chair and two power drills. It was bigger than the stone used as a press.

“We didn’t hesitate about making a print bigger than the bed of the press,” said Jim Webb, who was a printer at Gemini from 1966 to 1977. “We just fixed up a cradle on the back of the press to handle the part of the paper that wasn’t being printed. And then when it was time to print that part we just put the other stone on, turned the paper around and printed the bottom half. So things like that, we enjoyed it, we embraced it, it was great.”

Rauschenberg and Gemini combined lithography and screenprinting in a new type of ‘hybrid’ print that had never been made before. For David Hockney, they built a custom hydraulic lift that allowed Hockney to draw his portraits directly onto a 300-pound stone.

This work is being done by printers and etchers with many years of experience. For example, Xavier Fumat has worked at Gemini for 18 years, most of that time exclusively with the artist Richard Serra. Fumat studied printmaking at Cal State Northridge and now teaches printmaking at USC. The prints he makes for Serra involve both a copper plate and a screen to put thick layers of etching ink onto sheets of expensive, finely crafted Japanese paper.

“The only way you’ll know what it’s going to look like is by proofing it, printing it and trying it,” Fumat explained. “So we keep track of every step that’s being done. The kind of mixture that we’re using, the screen that we’re using, the type of etching ink that we’re using, and also the paper that we’re using, because that makes a difference.”

If you think this sounds like a very slow, tedious process, you’re right. Ayn and Nancy Grinstein, daughters of co-founders Sidney Grinstein and his wife Elyse, are now part-owners of the business.

“The thing is about what we do, it’s time consuming. And most people don’t want to spend a lot of time when they can do Photoshop or whatever, doing a project,” Ayn Grinstein said.

“It’s funny, it’s like slow art, like slow food,” Nancy Grinstein added. “These are master etchers and master printers. So it’s not something that you can just go to school for a couple of years and learn. These guys and women are masters at what they do. It takes education, it takes feeling the materials, knowing the chemistry, and that’s really important and you can’t do that quick.”

One example of how precise the printers need to be comes from Ruth Fine, former curator at the National Gallery of Art who put together a 1984 retrospective of Gemini G.E.L.

“My favorite Gemini story had to do with printing an Ellsworth Kelly yellow print,” Fine said. “One story I heard from every printer who was anywhere in the territory was how they had to vacuum the ceiling before they printed every print to be sure that nothing fell from the ceiling onto this pristine pure yellow plate. So that’s my favorite Gemini anecdote and I heard it from four different printers so I knew it had to be true.”

One of the artists that worked closely with Gemini G.E.L. is Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, who enjoyed a 27-year collaboration with Gemini G.E.L., and they collaborated on 124 editions. There’s a show of his work coming up at the Skirball Cultural Center on Oct. 7. It’s called “Pop For the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.,” and it includes about 20 of the works he did with Gemini.

Included in the Skirball show are three interiors: two large prints and one called “Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior,” which is five panels intended to be used as wallpaper.

“Lichtenstein had come to Gemini G.E.L. in 1990 and he had this crazy idea to do American living rooms or living spaces,” said Bethany Montagano, the curator of the Skirball show. “Because he was looking in home magazines, [which] were becoming really popular at the time. And he decided that he was going to go into America’s most intimate spaces and make them into fine art. It’s also his commentary on things that we value, the way the way that we place things, and it was really his visual interest in architecture, in forced perspective and scale, and being able to create depth and a different perception by just using line and using print.”

“Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior” shows the corner of a living room reflected in a mirror, with a blue-and-white zebra striped carpet, black and white polka dot and striped walls, couch, coffee table, lamp and plant. This is another example of Gemini G.E.L. experimenting with the artist, in this case, adapting the printing press to make a work this big.

Meanwhile, another print shop in Los Angeles is having a moment right now, called Mixografia. It’s a printmaking studio south of downtown LA that creates handmade paper and manipulates it into various textures, colors and shapes. Their patented processes have produced artworks made of paper that imitate materials ranging from concrete and rusted metal to wood, plastic and string.

Master printer Luis Remba, 84, founded Mixografia with his wife Lea, 76, in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Their son Shaye Remba oversees all the production at their Los Angeles workshop. Mixografia has worked with some of the art world’s leading luminaries, including John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Alberto Burri, Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Stella.

Luis Remba invented the “mixografia” process in the early 1970s while working as a printer in Mexico City. Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo commissioned him to make a mural-sized high-relief print, of a scale that hadn’t been achieved before. Luis and Shaye Remba both have backgrounds in mechanical engineering.

“We are not artists, because we are a tool for the artist,” Luis Remba said. “We respect totally the creative part of the artist. We don’t impose or we don’t demand other things because then it will not be the artist’s work, it will be our way to work. This is not what it’s about.”

The debut exhibition at the new 6,000-square-foot Mixografia Gallery is “Paper or Plastic?,” a solo show of new work by LA-based artist Analia Saban.

Saban designed a series of eight prints of disposable white plastic bags. They bear phrases like “Thank You For Your Business,” “Have A Nice Day” and “Gracias” stamped above an American flag or a smiley face. The wrinkled bags were made using Mixografia’s three-dimensional printing process.

Mixografia has had museum shows all over the world, and has operated galleries in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, but this is their first permanent exhibition space next to their workshop. Luis Remba said they want to teach young people about their unique printmaking technique.

“The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” is now on show at LACMA through January 2nd. “Paper or Plastic?” is now on show through November 12th at Mixografia Gallery at 1419 East Adams Boulevard. “Pop For the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.” will be shown at the Skirball Cultural Center from October 7, 2016 through March 12, 2o17.