"I was hanging a show of sculpture and drawings, and a critic came in and started asking me what things were. He paid no attention to what I said. He said what do you call these? And I said sculpture. He said why do you call them sculpture when they're just casts? I said they weren't casts, that some of them had been made from scratch, and others had been casts that were broken and reworked. He said yes, they're casts, not sculpture. It went on like that." (Jasper Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns: The Sculptures, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 1996, p. 66)
Jasper Johns' The Critic Sees is a small icon of 20th Century sculpture, something so famous and compelling that whole theories of interpretation have been lavished upon its meaning. Johns only produced about 15 sculptures between 1957 and 1964. In most cases they were exact copies of everyday objects such as light bulbs, flashlights or beer cans, lovingly recreated so that one is never sure whether the work is cast directly or sculpted. The majority of these Sculpt-metal and bronze objects are life-size, made originally as purely personal investigations, and many are still owned by the artist. The Critic Sees, which was crafted out of Sculpt-metal on plaster with real glass for the spectacles, was formally in the collection of Robert and Ethel Scull, the foremost collectors of Rauschenberg, Johns and Pop Art of their day.
In The Critic Sees, Johns presents a soft metallic brick, covered with layers of smoothed and burnished Sculpt-metal, in which two mouths cast from life seem to speak behind a pair of glasses. The critic's teeth are exposed, one mouth open and the other almost shut, and together they appear like shadowy caverns. These mouths look as if they are ready to eat. The sculpture is in part a satirical comment on the rhetoric of critics, and it was apparently inspired by a three-minute visit from a buffoon of a critic to one of Johns' exhibitions. Johns jokes that critics are blind and see with their mouths. On a deeper level, Johns explores the relationship between art and language, between visual perception and spoken or written thought.
It was Freud and Wittgenstein who stated that some things can only be effectively said, playfully or in the margins, as a joke. Kirk Varnedoe recognizes in The Critic Sees Johns' ability to impart "a frozen power" to ideas that might otherwise be one-liners. "In a lesser artist, jokes like these and Johns's various puns might be just trivial. But everything depends on the delivery, and in his downbeat deadpan they come off as a bridge between Duchamp's smutty French-schoolboy blaques and Bruce Nauman's "stupid" word games and poke-in-the-eye black humor. The joke in The Critic Sees, for example, lands on us like the brick it is, and the evident sight/mouth conflation may have less to do with the piece's long-term bite than it does the uncomfortable incongruity (often ignored in reproductions) between the light jest and the sullen gray lump of this fake-metal ingot. The gap is miles between the swift, surgical wit of Duchamp's readymades and the seemingly flat-footed, slow-burn emotive complexity of such an object; Johns' works can be at their most serious when they and their premises are this dumb, in the double sense of the word." (K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 24).
Between 1959 and 1966, Johns made three sculptures that commented on his experience with critics and their lack of perceptivity. The Critic Smiles, 1959, (Collection of the artist), executed the year after Johns's first solo exhibition, was the earliest and shows a Sculpt-metal toothbrush with a set of molars instead of bristles. As with The Critic Sees, the title is stamped into the work, like a pronouncement. The implication is that the critic smiles with polished teeth, while planning his critical "bite". Johns finally returned to the subject in 1966 with a variant of The Critic Sees made in cement, wax and glass. Entitled Summer Critic, the mouths are seen behind sun-glasses rather than regular spectacles. The critic has taken a poolside holiday.
In both Summer Critic and The Critic Sees, Johns gives a brick the signifiers of seeing, and thinking and speaking. He presents two faculties not only integrally linked with the appreciation of works of art, but with the human perception of the visual world: sight and verbal articulation. "It is impossible to tell here whether speech has usurped vision, or vision has taken over speech. Instead they appear as mutual reinforcements, components of an integrated function. Johns' statement in The Critic Sees is open-ended and ambiguous, as is our relation to art. Johns allows the viewer to reflect, offering a wide range of possibilities as to how art can be looked at, even if it contains no simple message." As Max Kozloff writes, "For one moment in his career the artist externalizes, perhaps even allegorizes, the dialogue in which 'the prime motive of any work is the wish to give rise to discussion, if only between the mind and itself'."(M. Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York 1967, p.10).