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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.

Comments () | Archives (58)

The comments to this entry are closed.

and to make a spin on a recent tweet by Christopher Knight about the NY Times' Manet self-portrait article:

"How good is this painting? Let's just quote a video with a collector...and only a collector..."

Glad to see LA Times is advertising for art on the auction block too.

Didn't know anyone spoke to Ovitz anymore...
That flag is likely the closest thing he has to a friend.

More on the Ovitz collection in link above - incredible private collection that hopefully will get in more museums for display

There is a great article in the Economist about the Jasper Johns collection: http://www.economist.com/node/16136704

Yes, I'd seen that. Funny that Michael Ovitz, Broad, Geffen, etc all seem to like the same art!

This is going to sound terrible and ignorant but why are paintings of the American flag - albeit creative - going for millions? I might pay $25 for one at a garage sale if I were feeling patriotic!

To the previous comment - not sure if modern art is for you... Jasper Johns is valued very appropriately

Agree with above comment - that's sort of like saying Warhol just threw up a cambell's soup can.

I have seen a Johns flag in person and I can assure you it is truly extraordinary

Isn't Eli Broad building an art museum in downtown L.A.? When is that supposed to open and what art will be within?

Yes, there was an article about it in the Times recently. Not sure about the collection.

I'd love to see the Michael Ovitz collection - and Eli Broad

They should have had this auction yesterday!

I had no idea what the previous comment was referring to until I put two and two together: 4th of July, Jasper Johns American flag... Ha, ha, very funny.

The Michael Ovitz "White Flag" is a splendid example of paintings you simply must see in person to fully appreciate. So much is lost in even the most painstaking reproductions, images, etc. Once you see you can truly appreciate the genius of Jasper Johns.

Michael Crichton is one of my favorite authors - whatever art he likes is okay in my book...

To the previous comment, you should think for yourself. Art is subjective.

Love Jasper Johns - great inconic artist

Michael Ovitz did not sell his Jasper Johns - just to be clear the Jasper Johns auctioned by Christie's came from Michael Crichton's collection.

The Jasper Johns flags are noteworthy because they were the first expressions of what later became known as 'pop-art'. The layman associates this innovation with Warhol, whose works arrived upon the scene significantly later. At the time this represented a radical departure from the expressionism typical of his era.

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