Pop Art in Print at the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art opened a new exhibit Oct. 4 celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gemini G.E.L. Graphic Editions Limited, a prominent artists’ workshop and publisher of limited edition prints and sculptures. The exhibit, titled “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.,” is only a small part of the trove of Gemini G.E.L prints the gallery hosts. The National Gallery is also home to the Gemini G.E.L. archive, containing copies of almost every edition ever published by the artists’ workshop.

Gemini G.E.L., founded in 1966 by master printer Kenneth Tyler and businessmen Sidney Felsen and Stanley Grinstein, has a long tradition of collaboration with famous artists. The facilities are open exclusively to invited artists, with only one artist allowed to work at a time. The few artists granted access to Gemini G.E.L. are given artistic leeway seldom found in other workshops. More than 70 percent of the artists who have ever worked with Gemini G.E.L. have created serial works, which created the basis for the new exhibit.

“The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” boasts 17 distinct series of different artists, comprising 127 works spanning five decades. These series vary widely thematically, narratively and aesthetically. Hence, the sequence is critical to how each is understood and distinguished. The order of each piece in a series can be logical, like in Jasper Johns’ 1969 series ”Color Numerals,” in which each print is largely emblazoned with a number from zero to nine, but most of the series in the exhibit have sequences open to interpretation. In this vein, the U-shaped exhibit hall does not have a traditional, exclusive entrance and exit, leaving visitors free to explore alternate interpretations of sequence and narrative.

One opening of the exhibit begins with Richard Serra’s 1999 series “Rounds.” The pieces, each named after a jazz and blues musician, share the common feature of a large black “round” located centrally on the pristine white canvas. The pitch-black appearance calls to mind black holes and, combined with the carefully textured paint, communicates vast depth and weight.

Serra’s series opens into another room featuring the series of three different artists: David Hockney, Ken Price and James Rosenquist. “The Weather Series,” by Hockney in 1973, is a charming chain of weather phenomena inspired by both French impressionism and Japanese u-kioye woodblock prints. In the center of the room, Price’s 1991-92 “Cups” is one of the few 3-D series in the exhibit. Each of the six cups is geometric, colorful and whimsical varying in embellishment. Rosenquist’s 1981-82 series “The Glass Wishes” occupies the wall facing “The Weather Series.” Rosenquist, a pioneer of pop art, draws heavily from the vodka ads of the 1980s as well as Samuel Beckett’s screenplay “Krapp’s Last Tape.” His work heavily criticizes the temptation of alcohol and laments the loss of beauty and purity in the violence of drunkenness.

The next room also features multiple artists, with both playful and sexual undertones. Bruce Nauman’s “Fingers and Holes” is a series of sketches of hands in different poses, making clever use of positive and negative space. “Notes,” a 1968 series by Claes Oldenburg, occupies the adjacent wall, inspired by “scribbles and sketches” he made while at a Gemini workshop. His careful selection resulted in a witty and surreal series that employs wordplay between seemingly unrelated objects and texts.

John Baldessari’s 1994/2012 “A French Horn Player,” “A Square Blue Moon, and Other Subjects,” Robert Rauschenberg’s 1974 “Hoarfrost Editions,” and Michael Heizer’s 1978 “Scrap Metal Drypoints” all follow. Baldessari employs colored disks over appropriated images to create a narrative that somehow seems to defy logic.

In an adjacent space, Ed Ruscha’s 2007 series “Cityscapes” highlights the importance of context and shared reference points in language. The piece is comprised of seemingly arbitrary blank boxes on darker rectangles of ink. Yet, on closer examination, the bottom of each piece has subtly threatening and malicious messages that correspond with the blanks.

The following room features the only three female artists in the exhibit: Julie Mehretu, Susan Rothenberg and Vija Celmins. Mehretu’s 2014 series “Only By Dark” has themes ranging from population and migration statistics to ancestral roots. Rothenberg’s “Puppet” series has a slightly disturbing sequence of disembodied limbs meant to symbolize the lost, “dislocated” pain of Americans since the tragedy of 9/11. Celmins’ 1984 “Concentric Bearings” features the same few images appropriated from magazine illustrations: a falling star, a corkscrewing airplane and Marcel Duchamp’s famous kinetic sculpture “Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics).”

Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic “Bull Profile” from 1973 and Johns’ previously mentioned series are in the following room. Lichtenstein’s work progressively simplifies and abstracts a Holstein cow, echoing earlier works by Pablo Picasso. Johns’ painted numbers are a marvelous display of large numerals painted over colored canvas, giving the viewer familiar symbols to reimagine.

After viewing this exquisite exhibit, many visitors will undoubtedly want to learn more. Luckily, the exhibit has an online feature to enrich visitors’ experiences. With more than 200 pictures from the exhibits, the site is full of bonus features such as extra texts describing the technical aspects of the works and exclusive behind-the-scenes content with the artists themselves.

Ultimately, the vast breadth and depth of the exhibit, spanning various decades and artists, is an excellent showcase of the type of work done at Gemini G.E.L. over the years. Great for newcomers or the seasoned fan, the exhibit is a fitting celebration of Gemini G.E.L.’s 50th anniversary and bodes well for exciting future exhibits.

“The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” runs until Feb. 7, 2016.

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