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Robert Rauschenberg loved soaps, Gregory Peck loved Rauschenberg: Sidney Felsen recalls

Robert Rauschenberg loved soaps, Gregory Peck loved Rauschenberg: Sidney Felsen recalls
Gemini G.E.L. cofounder Sidney Felsen. (Stuart Palley / For The Times)

Gemini G.E.L. cofounder Sidney Felsen has worked side by side over the last 50 years with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Man Ray. Nearly 92 (his birthday is in September) and typically dapper in a wide-brimmed straw Panama hat and wire-rimmed glasses, Felsen still runs the artist workshop and fine art printing company on Melrose Avenue, where he's amassed a treasure trove of stories. Here he shares anecdotes of working with some of his favorite artists:

Robert Rauschenberg's 6-foot-tall "Booster," printed at Gemini in 1967.
Robert Rauschenberg's 6-foot-tall "Booster," printed at Gemini in 1967. (Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Photo / Museum Associates / LACMA)

On working with Robert Rauschenberg: "The way he loved to work was: He'd have the TV on with soaps, then he'd want you and you and me just to hang around and talk to him while he was working. He'd just talk to you about whatever, but his mind was working on what he was doing and he was making his pieces. This was the mid-'70s. He'd have music on. A lot of times he'd work 15 hours straight and we'd bring in food. He liked Italian or Mexican. One night, I remember, he worked 24 hours straight without leaving. And the printers would work 10 hours and lay down and rest. He came out at 8 in the morning and got on a bike and rode around the parking lot. Just for the fresh air. There's a picture of it on my wall."

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On Rauschenberg's "Booster": " 'Booster' was, at that time, the largest hand-pulled lithograph in the world. What happened, was: I picked up Bob at the airport and said, 'Do you have any ideas?' He said, 'I'm thinking about doing a self portrait of inner man,' whatever that means. So then I picked him up in the morning and he said, 'Do you have any friends who are X-ray doctors?' Just so happens, from my Fairfax High days, my closest friend became an X-ray doctor. So we drove Bob over there. He wanted to do a 6-foot X-ray, head to foot. But there was no such thing. X-ray machines were 1-foot. So he took six 1-foot plates made up of his body, and that was the basis of 'Booster.' And then he added all his Rauschenberg things to it. It was a smash success."

On working with Claes Oldenburg: "For the first two years, we did only works on paper, prints, and then Claes Oldenburg came along and said, 'Do you want to do a sculpture in multiple?' And we said, 'Yes.' There was an automobile design in the [late 1930s] called Chrysler Airflow, it was a whole new concept, and he wanted to make a model of it, a drawing on a piece of paper and a form that was translucent. He wanted it to be swimming-pool green or Jujube green, and so we had someone make a mold. It took us a year to find someone who could make it like that."

Roy Lichtenstein carving into a wood block for “Head,” 1980.
Roy Lichtenstein carving into a wood block for “Head,” 1980. (Sidney B. Felsen)

On working with Roy Lichtenstein: "We'd ask all these East Coast artists to come out and do something and everyone said, 'Oh, I'll come out in January or February.' From 1968 to '96, when Roy started [working with Gemini] and just before he died, every other year he came out in February and stayed four to six weeks. It was amazing how involved he got. It's hard to carve a woodblock. We'd offer him all these fancy tools and he'd say no. He just wanted a basic carving tool, and you'd look at his hand and it was raw. He was really a trouper. Roy's woodcuts — he'd be here a month and we'd print for a year.

On Gregory Peck: "Norman Lear had these Sunday evening film preview nights. Bob Rauschenberg was working at Gemini — this was probably the late '80s — and Norman said, 'Why don't you bring him?' So we walk in the house, and there were a lot of people, and Gregory Peck is sitting over there. Bob and Gregory start talking, all night, and they're talking about creativity. In the morning, I'm sitting at my desk and the phone rings. I pick up and say 'hello.' And he says: 'I don't know if you remember me, I'm Gregory Peck.' I say: 'Yeah, I remember you, Gregory!' When he and Bob were talking, Bob had said, 'Why don't you come in and watch me work.' So he did. He stayed until about 6 p.m. It was August, and Bob was working outside on the patio between the two buildings, and there was a fair amount of Jack Daniel's flowing and Bob was making brass chairs. Bob would walk up and down, doing this and that, and Gregory would follow him. I was sitting there watching this for six hours!

Follow me on Twitter: @DebVankin

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