… It is concerned with re-creating the process of perception rather than the objects perceived.
This is from ‘Johns’ (1964) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):
… Johns is too much of an ironist not to enjoy the spectacle of our confusion. But isn’t it possible that he himself doesn’t know the answers, is not concerned with answers but only with questions. Total curiosity: that, I take it, is Johns’s ideal of an attitude of mind. The measure of h is own curiosity is the persistence with which he nags away at a question, letting it take him where it leads him. I think that this is where he is profoundly different from Marcel Duchamp, his affinity to whom may have been exaggerated.
[line break added] Duchamp is much more ready to impose himself on the situation, to decide where he’s going next, to make an intuitive leap to a certain position, gather himself and make another leap. By the same token, he is also much more the performer. Johns will take pleasure on the public’s confusion; Duchamp seeks to promote it. … Duchamp likes to play for effect. I don’t mean that he’s a clown, but he is a rhetorician.
Jasper Johns, By the Sea, 1961
… Certainly Johns is well aware of how the world reacts to his work — is extremely curious about it. But in an almost clinical spirit. He doesn’t do something in order to provoke a certain effect. He does something, then waits to observe the reaction it gets. The reaction may have an influence on what he does next, but this in turn is done experimentally, not rhetorically.
Jasper Johns, Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963
… The content always has to do with an aspect of the relation between reality and art. The early Flags and Targets emphasized questions of design and format. But in most of the work since then the focus has been on the relation between reality and the stuff out of which the work of art is made. This applies both to the bronzes with their smooth surfaces and unambiguous figuration, and to the paintings, with their broken painterly handling and their elusive, indefinable reference to our visual experience of the real world.
[line break added] Johns’s paint is poignantly beautiful, carries that inexplicable density and weight of feeling which spells nothing less than greatness in a painter. And it is always more than beautiful and emotionally charged paint. A field consisting of brushmarks in slightly varying tones of medium grey somehow gives the conviction that it is relevant to our vision of reality — a conviction that can’t explained or justified in rational terms. The only hint or guess that I can hazard is that it evokes a sense of reality through its evocation of a process of disintegration and re-integration.
… In Picasso’s first collage painting, for example, the Still life with chair caning of 1912, there is a piece of oilcloth upon which is printed a trompe l’oeil representation of chair caning. The oilcloth is a fragment of the real world incorporated into the artificial world of a work of art. Looking at the oilcloth we may be deceived that it is an actual fragment of chair caning. But it’s not chair caning, it’s oilcloth. The ‘real’ element in the picture is in fact its most artificial element in that it’s intended to deceive. And so on. Is this not precisely the kind of semantic paradox with which Johns has been concerned?
At a deeper level lies the fact that, like a Johns, an analytic cubist painting somehow gives us the feeling that it is about visual experience, however difficult it may be to name things to which it refers. It is concerned with re-creating the process of perception rather than the objects perceived. It is very evidently concerned with disintegration and re-integration. It operates, as a Johns does, in the area between question and assertion. It fuses lyricism with intellectual investigation.
Jasper Johns, Out of the Window, 1959