Michael Crichton: Private View

Michael Crichton was known to the world as the visionary behind megahit science fiction novels and movies. Now his passion and eye for art are coming to light as his prized collection goes on the block.

Culture » Art & Design » Michael Crichton: Private View

In Crichton’s home, from left, Agnes Martin’s Untitled, circa 1961, oil, ink and wash on canvas; Jasper Johns’s Flag, 1960–66, encaustic and printed paper collage on paper laid down on canvas.

Michael Crichton: Private View

Michael Crichton was known to the world as the visionary behind megahit science fiction novels and movies. Now his passion and eye for art are coming to light as his prized collection goes on the block.

Michael Crichton had a prolific career as the writer of techno-thriller page-turners and movie blockbusters like The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Disclosure, and became a household name after he created TV phenom ER. When pressed with the incessant question “Where do you get your ideas?,” he had a stock answer at the ready: “I call a 1-800 number every morning,” he’d joke.

“He didn’t have to work to be creative,” says his widow, Sherri. “That was a gift that he was given.”

He was, however, fascinated by the power and manifestation of creativity in others, and it was his admiration for the ingenuity of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Claes Oldenburg and, most deeply, Jasper Johns, that led Crichton, friends and family say, to collect art passionately in the decades before his unexpected death, at 66, in November 2008. Though he took great care assembling the collection, he neither flaunted it nor boasted about it. Unlike many a collector, he did not trade on his possessions for status. “He was very, very private, and so many of our friends really never saw the entire collection because we didn’t do a lot of entertaining,” says Sherri, who was his fifth wife. Even über collector Eli Broad, who was a neighbor of Crichton’s in Los Angeles, says he never saw the whole thing. “He wasn’t interested in having people trudge through his home looking at the art, as many collectors are,” Broad explains. Nearly the entire treasure trove—valued at approximately $100 million and about 100 lots in all, including fine examples of Picasso, David Hockney, Agnes Martin, Ed Ruscha and Yayoi Kusama—will be sold at Christie’s in April and May.

Crichton’s mother, Zula, saw to it that her son gained an appreciation of art at an early age. When he was in kindergarten, she would pull him out of school on Long Island and bring him into Manhattan to attend a weekly class at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite school officials’ protestations, Sherri says, Zula continued to do so for years. By the time Crichton was an undergrad at Harvard, he had developed a sensitivity and confidence about aesthetics; he once wrote that “my roommates were obliged to put up with my autocratic insistence that I buy all the posters.” In 1969, the year he graduated from Harvard Medical School and published The Andromeda Strain, he bought his first print, a Jack Youngerman silk screen. So much for posters. Crichton began collecting prints in earnest. Two years later, art critic Barbara Rose, who’d become a friend, took him to Gemini G.E.L., the influential L.A. printmaker where all the leading lights made work. Soon Crichton was stopping by whenever he needed a break from writing. “He hung out a lot here,” recalls Gemini cofounder Sidney B. Felsen. “Michael was very inquisitive. He wanted to know what the process was all about.”

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.

Crichton’s is not what one would consider a bold collection; these are not daring choices of difficult works or young, untested artists. Nor is this an enormous collection. Crichton was not one of those prolific collectors who seem to have strolled the aisles of Art Basel with a shopping cart. Rather, he made a studied, deliberate selection, guided by intelligent dealers, namely Glimcher, Margo Leavin and Deborah McLeod. “He was not an impulse buyer,” says Ovitz, who played matchmaker for Crichton and Sherri but had to force his old friend to make the call. Ovitz recalls Crichton being an obsessive researcher. On an Italian vacation on Ovitz’s yacht, Crichton was doing background work for a book. “He must have had a hundred pages of notes,” Ovitz says. “I said to him, ‘How many pages will that help you with when you’re writing?’ He said, ‘Maybe two.’”

Crichton lost some works in his four divorces, and though a few highly sought-after paintings, including Johns’s Double Flag and 0 Through 9, apparently have already been sold, he rarely parted with works willingly. Glimcher says he was that rarest of clients, uninterested in whether his purchases would appreciate in value. But as oft happens when the assets of an estate are substantial, distributing Crichton’s fortune got messy. The wrench in this case took the form of John Michael Todd Crichton, his son born posthumously, in February 2009. Though Crichton was ill with cancer and Sherri pregnant, he neglected to change his will. In the contentious aftermath of his death, Crichton’s 21-year-old daughter from his fourth marriage, Taylor, even challenged John Michael’s paternity in court. A simple DNA test proved her wrong. A judge ruled last October that John Michael was an “omitted heir” and entitled to a third of his father’s estate. While some Crichton friends find it hard to believe he intended for his collection to be dispersed at auction and instead blame family acrimony—which extended to Crichton’s mother and siblings—for forcing a sale, the trustees determined a public auction would be the most clear-cut way to determine market value and to fulfill Crichton’s many bequests. Some beneficiaries are expected to be among the bidders. “It was the way, unfortunately, the trust was structured,” Sherri says. “I say unfortunately, but that’s only unfortunately for me. It is what Michael wanted.”

The family rancor, Sherri says, has calmed down. “It’s a work in progress,” she says, declining to go into detail. She is raising John Michael on her own and reports that the one-year-old has just started walking and uncannily resembles his father—tall, with long fingers and flat nails, a habit of lifting his eyebrow the way his dad did and a temperament to match. “He takes it all in and is very quizzical,” she says.

After they were married, in 2005, the Crichtons enjoyed moving the various pieces around their house to get a fresh take on them. “There were times when he was staring at a Hockney, or there were other times that he was staring at a Johns or a Tom Friedman when he was working,” says Sherri. Now the walls in the Crichton house are plain white. But there is at least one that is not completely bare. As the art was being crated and moved out, Sherri says, a package arrived. It was from Johns. “He sent a lithograph for John Michael, so that’s what’s in the house right now. Flag was Michael’s most prized possession in the collection, and what Jasper sent for John Michael was a trial proof of Flag. It was beyond the perfect gift,” she says. “Without knowing, he filled such an empty void, and somehow it’s just all okay.”