The Getty Research Institute has acquired the Sidney B. Felsen photography archive.
Felsen, who turns 95 next month, is co-founder, with the late Stanley Grinstein, of the artists workshop and fine art lithography publisher Gemini G.E.L., which opened its doors in 1966. His robust photo archive documents five decades of boundary-pushing work made at the Melrose Avenue studio by seminal artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Richard Serra and others.
The photographer and curator Jack Shear, Kelly’s husband, purchased the archive earlier this year from Felsen and donated it to the Getty. He also donated 15 prints to the Getty Museum’s department of photography.
The acquisition — which includes original slides and negatives along with digital prints and files, handmade calendars, Polaroids and 3D photographs — adds to efforts at the GRI to beef up its photography holdings of Los Angeles artists working in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century.
“We do have the photo archives of Jerry McMillan, Ed Ruscha and Malcolm Lubliner, but we only had a few images of Gemini G.E.L. printmaking activities,” said GRI associate curator of photographs Isotta Poggi. “Gemini is very important in showing the West Coast art scene, the art production here; this [gift] will contribute more visual documentation about the printmaking process and how it was used by very important contemporary American artists.”
Felsen, originally an accountant, studied painting and ceramics for fun as a young man. His passion for photography was sparked much earlier, though, with the gift of a Kodak Retina for his bar mitzvah in 1937. Throughout his years chronicling artists at work at Gemini, he typically shot quietly, from the sidelines, with a rangefinder camera because of its silent, unobtrusive shutter.
Last year, Gemini presented an exhibition of more than 200 of Felsen’s images, selected from about 2,000 negatives, “The Artist Observed.”
At the time, Felsen told The Los Angeles Times that the significance of his photography grew organically over time, taking even him by surprise. At first it was just a casual labor of love, though something he considered “an honor.” But as the years went by — and the boxes of negatives piled up — he realized: “Wow, this is art history that’s all around us.”
The GRI acquisition, he added recently, came at just the right time.
“As my 95th birthday was approaching, I felt it was time to find a happy home that will take care of the photography collection and respond to the many photo requests I receive,” he said. “So for me, it’s a dream come true. I’m a great admirer of the Getty and its remarkable staff, and I believe they will be very responsible and efficient in the care and storage of the archive.”
Felsen, who still enjoys taking photographs, turns 95 on Sept. 3.