LIANE HANSEN, host:
The extraordinary art collection of the late writer Michael Crichton will be auctioned at Christie's in New York this week. The collection includes more than 90 works by such artists as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Pablo Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein. It turns out that Crichton, who created the TV show "E.R." and wrote "Jurassic Park," had a very special relationship with modern artists and their work.
NPR's Margot Adler explains.
MARGOT ADLER: Besides being the well-known writer of best-selling thrillers and the creator of movies and television shows, Michael Crichton was also a doctor and a scientist. But what only some people knew before his death in 2008 was that he was one of the foremost experts on the work of the artist Jasper Johns, and he was the friend and collector of many artists, mostly the pop artists.
He became fascinated by modern art when he came to Los Angeles to direct movies. During this period, artists like Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Johns had teamed up with the printer Ken Tyler, who founded the print shop Gemini G.E.L. in 1966. Tyler said Crichton and these artists had something in common: a fascination with the way things work.
Mr. KEN TYLER (Founder, Gemini G.E.L.): When the pop artists came around the Johnses and the Oldenburgs they were part of the new generation of artists that were interested in technology, interested in process. And in that popularity, one of the things that stood out was printmaking.
ADLER: So, these artists would show up for two or three weeks at Tyler's print shop, and Crichton would often show up, too. And he established a particular relationship with Jasper Johns, whose American flag paintings are considered the first icons of pop art.
He bought the most famous of Johns' flag paintings directly from the artist some 30 years ago, kept it in his bedroom in Beverly Hills. It was last seen in public 18 years ago, at an exhibition in London. Crichton and Johns became good friends, and Crichton became such an expert in Johns' work that he ended up writing the liner notes for the Whitney Museum's exhibition of Johns' work in 1977. An expanded edition, published by Abrams in 1994, is considered by many the definitive text on the artist.
Mr. BRETT GORVY (Deputy Chairman, Christie's Americas): What they saw in each other was this amazing, first of all, respect. Just, you know, two people with brilliant minds who could meet at this level but also, they saw in each other the way that they worked, that everything was pushing the boundaries.
ADLER: Brett Gorvy is deputy chairman of Christie's Americas. He says both Crichton and Johns looked at everything as a question, as a search, just as every painting of Johns required a search by the viewer.
Mr. GORVY: And even the most obvious image, such as the flag, raised so many different questions and so many paradoxes: Is this a flag? Is this a painting of a flag? Is this an object because it's three dimensional? Is this patriotic? Is this political? Well, ultimately, from Johns' point of view, he chose something which is ready-made, that was already in the public domain, that was an abstract image.
Its stars, its stripes, its color, bands - there was no political intention on his side. But what it did was unleash a whole new avenue for art. It allowed for artists such as the pop artists to come into being. Without the flag, you wouldn't see Warhol; you wouldn't see Lichtenstein. He truly moved the whole boundary as to where art was at that moment.
ADLER: As a collector, says Tyler, Crichton bought what he liked and researched it thoroughly. He made friends with many of the artists he collected.
Mr. TYLER: He was not a collector who collected to have a shrine built to him. He was a collector who got the art that he liked and lived with it and enjoyed, and he constantly moved it around.
ADLER: And that was one of Crichton's hallmarks. He had art handlers coming to his house all the time - to change the place of a painting, to put it in a room with a different light, to take a painting down or put one up.
Mr. OWEN CASEY ROTHSTEIN (Fine Art Shipping): There's this small Oldenburg that's in his collection, and I know that Ive moved that thing - easily - seven or eight times.
ADLER: Owen Casey Rothstein works for Fine Art Shipping.
Mr. ROTHSTEIN: One thing that was really amazing about Michael's collection is that you would take a piece off the wall, and the whole wall behind it is just Swiss cheese, because there are so many nail holes in the wall from them moving art around. But you start counting and you realize that, man, easily 30 paintings were at one point hanging in this particular spot.
ADLER: Everyone says Crichton moved the paintings to keep the works fresh, so they wouldn't become just background. Christie's Brett Gorvy says when Crichton bought a work from a dealer:
Mr. GORVY: Hed always ask for it to be delivered and if he could keep it over dinner. And the delivery people were slightly confused by this, but I think his main motivation was that he really wanted to see how to live with the objects, and he felt if he could sit and eat in front of the works with his family, that's how he would enjoy them moving forward.
ADLER: There are Warhols, Stellas, Hockneys, Picassos in this collection - 98 lots in all. One estimate for the worth of the collection is at least $75 million. When they were shown at Christie's all together almost a month ago, there was something very personal about the collection as a whole. That will never be seen again.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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HANSEN: You can see a gallery of some of the famous works in Crichton's collection that will go on sale at Christie's this week, including Jasper Johns' flag, at our website, NPR.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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