Master printer Xavier Fumat has spent 15 years at the famed West Hollywood print shop Gemini G.E.L. creating and re-creating prints for minimalist artist Richard Serra. Which is to say, he's spent 15 years working with a single color.
"All we see is black, black, black — it's all I've seen for 15 years," Fumat says, sort of jokingly exasperated, as one of the shop's other printers spreads a layer of black ink on a metal panel.
Since it was founded in 1966, Gemini G.E.L.'s philosophy has been to work with the most creative people in the world, let them figure out their vision and then facilitate it (I'm paraphrasing Ellen Grinstein, daughter of Gemini co-founder Stanley Grinstein, who accompanied us on a tour of the facility on Wednesday). In this case, that means helping Serra produce lots of richly textured, black rectangles. A series of the prints are on display in "The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.," the new LACMA exhibit honoring the print shop's decades of output on behalf of important modern artists. The explanatory text that accompanies series of prints by artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, John Baldessari and David Hockney includes an acknowledgement of the master printer who produced the works. In the case of Serra and Fumat's collaboration, Transversals, there's an image of the two working together.
Located in a Frank Gehry–designed storefront on Melrose, Gemini G.E.L. (which stands for Graphic Editions Limited) has spent 50 years quietly hosting some of the world's most important artists and producing limited editions of their prints. Originally a lithography and silkscreening studio, Gemini's mission was broadened by Grinstein and co-founder Sidney Felsen, who saw the potential to innovate in order to make prints that were larger, more experimental and with more dimension that what was being produced elsewhere.
In one half of the print shop, Case Hudson and two fellow printmakers demonstrate the production of a finely detailed etching by Frank Gehry. They slather a superfine layer of ink on a copper plate etched in acid with one of Gehry's early building sketches. The ink is rubbed off, first with a starched cheesecloth and then with the chalk-dusted palm of a hand, until it exists only in the tiny grooves on the plate. It's placed in a press with a sheet of dampened paper and pressed with even pressure with a roller to produce a print that resembles a fine line drawing.
On the other side of the workshop, Fumat and his crew are working on those big, roughly textured prints by Serra. They're grinding up paint sticks and them blending them with silica to make a thick paste to be slathered on the metal panels. When the panel is sent through the press, the chunks of texture leave indentations in the moistened paper, creating a rich, three-dimensional effect. (Unfortunately, that texture is difficult to capture on camera.)
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Looking dapper — first in a powder blue suit and later in a bold purple one — Sidney Felsen stands in one of LACMA's galleries surrounded by a selection of works produced over the years by the print shop he co-founded with Grinstein. It's a stunning survey, with woodcuts by Roy Lichtenstein, a deconstructed storybook by Claes Oldenburg and a 6-foot-tall "self-portrait" of Robert Rauschenberg, a full-body X-ray that was the largest hand-pulled lithograph in the world when Gemini created it in 1967.
Gemini built its legacy doing anything artists could dream up — and it shows.