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The Serious Fun & Profit of Print-Making

November 08, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

A wide swath of tickling playfulness ran through the '60s. For a lot of people now deep in middle age, the epoch represented a last chance to be really young, act silly, swear and spit.

You'd never know it today, but the L.A. print-and-multiple-making outfit Gemini G.E.L. (for Graphics Editions Ltd.) was launched in the froth of that giddy spirit in 1966. Like many a young rebel of the time, it has evolved into a model member of what used to be called The Establishment, with an archive at the National Gallery in Washington and a traveling exhibition that just came to roost in its hometown County Museum of Art through Jan. 3, flying some 160 works spruced up with examples that were not shown elsewhere and accompanied by a fat catalogue. Ah, success.

In its hippie youth Gemini had two things going for it. Its immediate predecessor was L.A.'s Tamarind Lithography Workshop launched by artist June Wayne to save the floundering craft of fine lithographic hand printing. It was seen as a high-minded effort to salvage a threatened species of serious culture and some of that aura of pious respectability smudged off on Gemini. Boy did they have it both ways. They were also helped by the climate of an era awash in a generous Age of Aquarius aesthetic that said that everything was art, or at least everything could be art. Anybody foolhardy enough to insist that every work of real art was a mini-miracle arriving with the mysterious logic of UFO's, mental telepathy and love at first sight was cast into outer darkness as not-with-it, square, or--worst of all--a lame turkey.

The original principals of Gemini were master printer Kenneth Tyler and two civilians who had become passionate art amateurs. Stanley Grinstein ran a fork-lift business and occasionally hoisted heavy works for artists. Sidney Felsen was a CPA so in love with art that eventually--according to a catalogue essay--he found that "living depended on the business world and fun depended on the art scene." His search for a way to combine the two led to the formulation of Gemini. If memory serves, it was Tyler (he left to start his own workshop in 1973) who early on explained Gemini by saying, "We print money."

At the time, the crack was considered marvelously irreverent because it was still the end of an era when art and money were mentioned in the same breath about as often as cocaine and communion. But now the art world was going to be tough and frank about money. It wanted some. Ed Kienholz made watercolors that were lettered statements of what he would trade them for, a car, a house, maybe a fancy watch he fancied. Enough of this bohemian-in-the-garret stuff. Why shouldn't artists drive Mercedes like everybody else? Art for money, fun and success. Why didn't somebody think of this before?

Well, that's all history now and anybody who doubts it is invited to take a look at the show. It is a veritable lexicon of the establishment art of a past era. Its main rooms are devoted to Gemini projects by Robert Rauschenberg (whose antic spirit pervades the operation), Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney. A generous dollop of flying insurance salesmen and transvestite clowns by Jonathan Borofsky should update the show to the Neo-Expressionist present but, instead, the chemical mix just makes Borofsky look Neo-Establishment.

Why is that? Maybe it has something to do with the perception that Gemini has inclined to play it safe. Most of the 40 artists it has recruited--people like Josef Albers, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, Ron Davis and Bruce Nauman--already anointed by fame and most often produced, or reproduced, images familiar to their oeuvre . Not that Gemini has failed to make a contribution. In attracting big-ticket artists to work in these balmy precincts it surely furthered L.A.'s image as an important art center.

Not that Gemini has funked innovation. It produced the world's largest hand-printed lithograph in Rauschenberg's 1967 "Booster." It linked Claes Oldenburg to a Hollywood special-effects studio so he could realize a gigantic insomniac ice bag that rose like a specter and fell into a gargantuan stupor. Heaven knows how many techniques it developed for metalizing inks, printing on cloth, making special papers and manufacturing three-dimensional objects. Naturally, these innovations are technical rather than artistic, but they were intended to contribute to artistic effect.

Hold on. Artistic effect ? That has a funny ring. Artistic effect sounds like something you do to make something look like art when it isn't.

Now we are getting down to it. Down to the old originality problem. Down to the old what-is-art problem. We could be here all night.

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