The plethora of reviews of the Johns "Gray" exhibition have presented an interesting microcosm of current art criticism in general. It's sometimes hard to tell that the various critics are talking about the same show. And it can be equally hard to say why we subject ourselves to reading this stuff at all. It can also be interesting to consider what it must have been like for Johns to work his whole professional life since that first Castelli show in the center of that criticism vortex. Fact is, for many critics, Johns' work is inseparable from the body of criticism it has generated. The reputation precedes and eclipses the work -- case in point -- Lance Esplund's unfortunate review in the NY Sun. Let me say that I've known Lance for a while, and had some very fun and interesting conversations with him, and he's a very decent guy. But really, one wonders why a person who apparently disdains contemporary art would want to be an art critic. The bulk of his review consists of grinding his axe against Johns as a standard bearer of the dreaded postmodernism, followed by unfavorable comparisons between the grays in Johns' work and what he (the reviewer) prefers to see in a painting. There is little doubt that this review was as good as written before he ever visited the show. A more professional and considered approach is offered by Jerry Saltz at ArtNet.com. One can sense that Saltz actually looked at the work, came to it fresh, and presented a thoughtful description, contextualization and analysis of the show and of Johns' larger contribution.
With paintings, there's almost always a disconnect between the critics' spin and what is actually there. But especially with Johns, the critical reputation is one thing, and the presence and resonance of his work (individually and as a body) is something else that happens one-to-one between the viewer and the objects. There is also a big difference between where Johns' work sits as a critical entity, and how his work has resonated and persisted in the minds of painters. One of the first shows I saw when I moved to NYC in 1975 was the cross-hatch paintings at Castelli uptown. That memory is still quite vivid. At a time when the broad critical consensus was that painting was at best irrelevant, Johns was making what I consider to be his greatest work, paintings that exist far beyond words, and hold their own against any painting from any time.
I recommend Joanne Mattera's sensitive and intelligent report on the "Gray" show from the vantage point of a painter.