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Michael Ovitz on Michael Crichton, and the Jasper Johns flags of their dreams [Updated]

May 11, 2010 |  9:00 am

D5313636l Michael Ovitz has one. David Geffen has another. Eli Broad has a couple. Just what is it about Jasper Johns's early "Flag" paintings that make some blue-chip collectors seem so, well, patriotic?

You can hear Ovitz rhapsodizing about the painted stars and stripes for yourself. For along with the usual auction catalogue for Tuesday night's sale of the Michael Crichton estate, which includes a 1960-66 "Flag" (right) among other works, Christie's has also produced a marketing video about the bestselling author and his appetite for art.

The cast of characters includes Christie's contemporary co-head Brett Gorvy, Crichton's fifth wife Sherri (one of the many heirs to his complicated estate) and master printmaker Ken Tyler.

But the star turn belongs to Ovitz, who was Crichton's agent for 30 years.

“We both owned several works of Jasper over the years from different periods and always spoke of the dream of owning a Flag,” says Ovitz about half-way into the video, going on to describe how Johns's first "Flag" images broke from the then-dominant style of painting (i.e., Abstract Expressionism) and ushered in new experiments (i.e., Pop Art).

Crichton bought his red-white-and-blue “Flag,” 1960-66, made of encaustic and paper on canvas, directly from the artist in 1973. Christie's is offering it Tuesday night with an estimate of  $10 to $15 million.

Ovitz bought his highly textured "White Flag," 1955-58, at Christie’s in 1988 for about $7 million. He has given it pride of place in his home ever since. When I interviewed him once for an ARTnews "Top 200 Collectors" issue, he singled out "White Flag" as the centerpiece in his collection. 

“It's one thing to look at reproductions, but when you see the painting in the flesh, with its heavily worked encaustic surface, it’s amazing,” he told me.

Unfortunately the best “Flag” paintings in Southern California cannot always be seen in person. In New York the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan both have great examples of these paintings, of which there are around 20 in existence. L.A. museums do not.

Rather, the best "Flags" out here are buried in private collections. David Geffen has one example, vertical in orientation. Eli Broad's foundation owns, along with a darker variation from 1994, two "Flags" from the 1960s. One is white like Ovitz’s. The other, colored like Crichton's but significantly larger, was displayed at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA until August 2009. [For the Record: An earlier version of this post stated that Broad's “Flag” was on display at BCAM “until Broad withdrew the bulk of his collection from the museum in late 2008.” Eli Broad did not “withdraw the bulk of his collection” from view at BCAM. Material from his collection has been rotated into view over the last two years, so that currently over 200 works from his collection can be seen at BCAM.]

--Jori Finkel

You can follow the writer on Twitter: @jorifinkel.

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