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.
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.