Stanley Grinstein, who played a pivotal role in the art scene in Los Angeles as it was evolving in the 1960s and '70s, was an unlikely candidate for that role. He was not an artist or even, at the beginning, a collector. He was in the forklift business and had a great fondness for USC football.
But in 1952, Grinstein got married and he and his wife, Elyse, went in search of a pastime they could mutually enjoy.
"They were looking for something they could do together, some kind of common ground," said their daughter Ayn Grinstein. "It turned out to be art."
As the hobby grew serious, Stanley Grinstein co-founded Gemini G.E.L., a seminal art print firm where a pantheon of artists created lithograph series and other works. Among those who created pieces at the high-tech workshop on Melrose Avenue over the years were David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein and many more.
Gemini, with an expansion designed by Frank Gehry, became a meeting place for artists as did, perhaps even more important, the Grinstein home, where the couple hosted legendary gatherings.
"There were certainly artists working in L.A. back then, but the world didn't know the place for anything but movies," said composer Philip Glass, who met the Grinsteins in the early 1970s when he, like many fledgling artists, stayed at their home in Brentwood when he was in town. "Their home was a power point as the music and art world were coming together to make L.A. a major arts center.
"The Grinsteins were not separate from this network of people meeting there. They were the network."
Stanley Grinstein, 86, died Sunday at home after battling a kidney ailment for several years, Ayn Grinstein said.
He was born Nov. 26, 1927, in Seattle and was in his sophomore year at the University of Washington when the family moved to Los Angeles. Grinstein transferred to USC, and he and his father started a scrap metal business. At one point, he bought a single forklift, and a business in selling and renting the machines grew from there.
Gemini was founded in 1966 by Grinstein and Sidney Felsen, a close friend and fraternity buddy from his college years at USC. In the beginning, their idea was to invite established, mostly East Coast artists to the shop to produce works. Among the high-profile artists they nabbed were Josef Albers, Man Ray and Rauschenberg.
They had a secret weapon to attract the big names.
"They used the lure of the weather," said Los Angeles artist John Baldessari, who created pieces at Gemini. "Where some of these blue-chip New York artists might not even respond to an invitation, this was a chance to get out of town during the winter."
Grinstein and Felsen needed the major artists to produce highly salable art for the venture, which had substantial upfront costs. Like similar operations, the arrangement with artists was that Gemini paid all travel and living expenses, in addition to providing the materials and artisans needed to produce the artworks in multiples. Each signed and numbered piece is owned by Gemini, which offers them for sale, with a royalty going to the artist.
Grinstein and Felsen were able to establish Gemini early on as a going concern. "They had this great mixture of art sense and business acumen, and those were the two parts of the great equation that created Gemini," said Earl "Rusty" Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where an archive of Gemini works is kept.
Though Grinstein also ran the forklift company until he sold it in 2000, he clearly loved being in the presence of working artists.
"Artists don't usually want you to be around them in their creative moments," Grinstein said in a 2006 Los Angeles Times interview. "But printmaking is a collaborative process. We've had the chance to be around some of the most creative people in the world when they've been creating."
It also provided the chance for fledgling Los Angeles artists to interact with the big names.
"I was an apprentice printer, just out of art school," said Laddie John Dill, now an established artist. "And there was Bob Rauschenberg, at the top of his game. It brought a new element to L.A. at a time the museums here were not much engaged in contemporary art."
It was also a personal boost for Dill, who ended up not only collaborating with Rauschenberg on a piece, but also getting a major agent through the veteran artist's introduction.
But it was not just artists associated with Gemini that got a boost through the Grinsteins. "They were my very first patrons," said Judy Chicago, who met them in the mid-1960s when she was living in Pasadena. The couple bought many of her works, and she ended up, like several other artists, living with them for a while. "It was a very different time in L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days collectors would become personally involved with artists for a long time, not just buy the art and that's it."
And then there were the frequent parties at the house, where East Coast and West Coast arts figures could mingle, and informal gatherings sparked collaborations. "I came home once and there was Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen sitting in the backyard writing music," said another Grinstein daughter, Ellen Perliter.
"My father's philosophy was that he was so honored to be with these creative people," she said. "Anything he could do to keep creativity going on was his joy."
Grinstein was also known to quietly subsidize artists who were going through rough periods. "Artists were struggling with paying the rent and food," Gehry said in a video interview for a proposed documentary on Grinstein. "And it was always somehow that money came forward. And it was never given with strings attached.
"It was always kind of, we're family, we share."
In addition to his wife and daughters Ayn and Ellen, Grinstein is survived by another daughter, Nancy Grinstein; sister Corinne Miller; and six grandchildren.
Times staff writer Christopher Knight contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times