It was at Gemini that Crichton met Johns. The two developed an abiding friendship. “Jasper Johns is exceedingly shy, very quiet, incredibly introspective and wildly thoughtful,” says Michael Ovitz, another of Crichton’s closest friends, his longtime agent and a fellow art collector. “If I would take Michael Crichton’s name and put it where Jasper Johns’s is, I would say exactly the same thing. I think that not only did Michael appreciate the work, he appreciated the person, and they were artists each in their own right.” Nan Rosenthal, a retired consultant of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who is coauthoring an essay for Christie’s sale catalog, attributes the Crichton-Johns alliance to sheer brainpower. “Michael was highly intelligent. He went to Harvard. He was a summa. He was a Phi Bet,” she says. “Jasper, as you know, is extremely intelligent. That was definitely a factor.”
Over the years Johns’s oeuvre grew to be the heart of Crichton’s collection. There were early pieces, like Gray Painting With Ball (1958), as well as late, such as Study for a Painting (2002), from Johns’s “Catenary” series. The centerpiece, though, was Flag (1960–66), an example of one of his most enduring motifs, Old Glory. Johns hand-delivered it to Crichton when he flew from the East Coast to work on a project at Gemini. Crichton wrote what many consider to be the definitive Johns catalog, for the artist’s 1977 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (One friend’s explanation for how Crichton came to write an art book: Johns couldn’t bear the thought of another dreary essay by an esteemed critic for his catalog and suddenly, in a meeting with the museum’s curators, blurted out that he’d already promised the text to Crichton.) In a 2007 appearance on Charlie Rose, Crichton proclaimed Johns to be the greatest living artist. In an earlier interview with Rose, he had said of Johns’s work, “It’s intellectually challenging, it’s visually challenging, and it rewards continued looking. You can have a piece of his work up for years and look at it and keep seeing new things and having new feelings about it.”
And Crichton clearly loved looking. Ovitz remembers Crichton coming to his house, which was just down the street, to see a newly acquired canvas. “When I got my Flag, we sat for three hours, just waxing on about Jasper and the picture. He just sat in the chair like this”—Ovitz folds his hands together—“staring at it. It was extraordinary.” Michael Govan shared a memorable helicopter ride with Crichton, director Ivan Reitman and gallerist Marc Glimcher to Dia:Beacon, where Govan was then director. (Crichton’s towering six-foot-nine frame barely fit inside the chopper.) “I’ve done a lot of museum tours,” says Govan, “and I think it’s safe to say that I don’t think I’ve ever done a tour with someone who looks more closely at everything than Michael did.” When Govan subsequently took the helm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Crichton was one of the first people he recruited to join the board. Despite Crichton’s discreet demeanor, Govan adds, the author—whose taste he calls “exquisite”—was very receptive to sharing. For the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, he lent a Johns, a Rauschenberg and a Ruscha at Govan’s request—and even let his name appear on the wall labels.