Charlie Rose once asked Michael Crichton — in that way only good friends can get away with — why he’d never written characters as interesting as himself, and Crichton responded — in that way only good friends can get away with — by ducking the question. That’s too bad, because Rose’s question was an excellent one, as anyone knows who’s read Travels (1989), Crichton’s picaresque memoir of psychological discovery by means of geographic exploration. He climbs Kilimanjaro; swims with sharks; beholds the pyramids; directs Sean Connery in Ireland in The Great Train Robbery (encountering a cool demeanor grounded in personal ethos that Crichton can’t help but admire); deep-sea dives for a wreckage in Bonaire (and nearly dies); goes hiking in Baltistan (and nearly dies); encounters gorillas in Africa (and nearly dies). Plus there’s medical school and psychoanalysis and L.A. and the death of his father and psychic experimentation (everything from seeing auras to bending spoons with his brain).
All of these experiences bring very real and substantial epiphanies — genuine self-critical and life-altering psychological insights. I’ve never read a better book about the kind of benefits that accrue to the engaged and curious citizen of the world — to one who eschews the safety of specialization, more difficult to avoid every day, and instead ranges out broadly to the very limits of one’s own curiosity. And through all of this Crichton never even gets around to dealing in detail with his passion for fine art, as both collector and connoisseur — even though, by the time Travels was written, he’d long since published the first edition of his monograph on Jasper Johns. (It came out in 1977, and, in 1994, would be revised substantially. The final version contains, in addition to Crichton’s text, no less than 231 images of Johns’s work).
The project began life when Johns, a close personal friend of Crichton’s and an artist whose work he’d already been collecting, asked him to do the catalogue for an upcoming retrospective at the Whitney. (Upon his death, Crichton’s estate would sell off his painting of Johns’s “Flag” (1960-66) for $28.6 million, more than any Johns work had ever received at auction.) Crichton accepted the assignment, characteristically, on the grounds of what he believed it would allow him to discover — figuring, somewhat naïvely and not entirely accurately, that “if I wrote the catalogue, [Johns] would have to answer all my questions.”
In an essay on his website, Crichton said that, upon being asked to write a catalogue on Johns, he took an informal survey of his own acquaintances, asking, “[I]f you were to read a catalogue, what would you want it to tell you?”
The answer that came back was unanimous, and surprising to me. They wanted to know something about the artist, what kind of a person he was. And then something about the background to the pictures — how they came to be painted, what was going on in the artist’s life at the time. And nothing else — “none of that art interpretation stuff,” as one person put it.
Thankfully, Crichton’s Jasper Johns — at least in its final version — does have plenty of “that art interpretation stuff,” but only of the kind that enhances one’s experience of the art. Crichton manages to write a personal profile while never neglecting his duty to the work that makes us care about the person in the first place. The two missions merge when, through a window in Johns’s living room, Crichton eavesdrops on Johns at work in his studio, allowing us, by extension, to eavesdrop as well:
Johns held a small brush, and was in constant movement, working rapidly — darting forward, stepping back, darting forward again to make a mark with the outstretched brush. His movements were fluid and quick. I had the impression of athleticism: a dance, or a fencing match.
After a moment, I turned away.
I felt as if I were prying.
Crichton is also interested in how Johns thinks, and how he communicates what he thinks, and how this is all manifested in the art that he ultimately makes. He relates the following surreal exchange from their first ever conversation:
“Why did you make that change?”
“Because I did.” His tone implied great reasonableness, as if that were the only possible answer.
I persisted: “But what did you see?”
“I saw that it should be changed.”
Since I wasn’t getting anywhere, I tried another approach. “Well, if you changed it, what was wrong with it before?”
“Nothing. I tend to think one thing is as good as another.”
“Then why change it?”
By now, he was getting exasperated with me. He sighed. There was a long pause. “Well,” he said finally, “I may change it again.”
“Well, I won’t know until I do it.”
Crichton defiantly, almost petulantly, claimed in interviews and essays, throughout his career, that he had no interest in human motivation, but there is, fortunately, plenty of evidence to the contrary — at least in Travels, and also in Jasper Johns, where he attributes Johns’s “willingness to use preexisting imagery and objects” to “[a] strong sense of acceptance of things as they are.”
And even though Dr. Janet Ross, in The Terminal Man (1972), has to ask why Jasper Johns would bother painting numbers, Crichton himself certainly doesn’t: “Johns paints his numbers as if they had some inherent concrete reality — and indeed the very act of painting itself creates some kind of concrete reality. What is that reality? It is a painting of the number 7, the shape of the numeral, standing without a context. Cezanne painted seven apples; Johns just paints 7.”
As for those infamous American flags, every bit as notorious in their abstraction as Johns’s numbers — Crichton has an appreciation for those, too: “[W]e see a man of 25 take one idea –an American flag on a canvas — and push it, stretch it, extend it, with great invention and inexorable logic. Even today there is a taut, controlled excitement about these pictures that cannot be missed.”
Who knows what Crichton’s own human motivation was, for pretending he wasn’t interested in human motivation when clearly he was? Whatever it is, Crichton produced, beyond the great heaping pile of op-ed techno-thrillers, two masterpieces of humanistic psychology. In Johns and his coolly abstracted aesthetic — as well as in his very own self — Crichton had found the kind of character whose motivations he considered worth all the trouble.