Object Lessons

Holland Cotter on truth, beauty, and critical Zen

The art critic Holland Cotter joined the staff of The New York Times in 1998, after six years of freelancing for the paper. Over the last decade, he has focused often on Asian art—and the recent swell of interest in this area has given his work a new centrality. Cotter’s following, however, stems from the sheer quality of his style, given as much to wonder as assessment. Jim Schachter, a Times editor who was formerly number two in the paper’s culture department, puts it this way: “I often think that he is the most wondrous writer at The New York Times.” And Schachter is hardly alone in this view. When an art-world blogger recently sniped at Cotter’s review of a Jasper Johns show, commenters flew to his defense. Regina Hackett, who writes about art for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, responded that “of all the critics out there, I think I might like Cotter the most, not only for his knowledge and insight (lots of critics have that) but for the heart and soul he quietly brings to each piece.” Allan M. Jalon, who reports on the arts for the Los Angeles Times and other publications, met with the slight, sixty-one-year-old critic at the Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval annex, which overlooks the Hudson River from the northern tip of Manhattan—an appropriate setting, since Cotter has written about it on numerous occasions.

Were you aware of the dust-up surrounding your Jasper Johns review?

No. Honestly, this is the first I’ve heard of it.

Do you read blogs?

No, but I’m aware of them. There’s an enormous opportunity out there for writers. But even e-mails—I find them enormously time-consuming. I’m reading and writing. It’s a question of concentrating. It’s hard to do it.

You told me you mostly work at home. Is there art on the walls?

No. I love blank walls.

Not even a postcard of a favorite writer?

I had one of a Buddha, a kind of Cambodian Buddha, taped to the wall. Then we moved to the new apartment, and it hasn’t gone back up.

Were you a show-and-tell personality as a kid?

I was a very shy kid. I was not likely to show and tell you anything. I was very bookish. Emily Dickinson was one of my great heroes from when I was ten years old. If you connect with poetry at an early age at all, and you connect with Emily at an early age, you’re connecting with language in a very intimate way. She’s just constantly handing you these gifts of language. Little explosive things are happening. Then there is also the example of the writer finding in art not just pleasure but also a moral source, an ethical source, a spiritual source. I see art as a huge environment you can live in. It shapes the way you see the world. It truly gives you your eyes.

How did you first enter the world of art?

I grew up in a museum-going, book-reading, music-listening family in and around Boston. My mother loved opera; my dad was a jazz and gospel fan. Maria Callas and Mahalia Jackson. All this just gets into your fiber. And when you grow up in Boston, you have the Museum of Fine Arts. I spent most of my Saturdays there. They have the greatest Japanese collection in the United States, as well as a very great Indian collection. I spent a lot of time in front of the Buddhist sculptures.

Do you know that book by Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake, about the origins of Buddhism in America?

Oh, yes. That’s a wonderful book. Boston was a very important place for American Buddhism. Ernest Fenollosa was teaching there—he was the one who started Japanese studies, really, in America. And a bunch of guys in Boston, who loved this art, were known as the Boston Buddhists. This came out of the Transcendentalists. Emerson. It was all a continuum. My father was a lifeguard at Walden Pond. I read Thoreau when I was very young.

Have you ever tried Buddhist meditation?

No. I read a lot of stuff. I think one of the reasons the Buddhist sculptures were so attractive to me was that they were foreign enough that I could view them as not art. They didn’t fit into a category for me. They could be some sort of communicative device. I view medieval European sculpture, for example, as familiar. The Buddhist sculpture was unfamiliar enough that I could do what I wanted with it.

You could envision your place in it.


And how did that lead to your career as an art critic?

As a young person, I never envisioned myself as a journalist. I’ve never had a path mapped out for myself. I went to college to study the writing of poetry.

Where and with whom?

I went to Harvard, and Robert Lowell was teaching there. I was in a graduate writing seminar with him. That was a very interesting experience. Again, my life has not moved in any linear direction. I truly feel that my writing is as much shaped by my experience as by any schooling I’ve ever had.

What sort of experience are you thinking of?

My dad was a doctor. Summer jobs, as a kid, I worked in hospitals. I worked in his hospital, and also in a state hospital for what was called the feeble-minded. Because I was a kid, they figured that wouldn’t matter, and they put me in a locked building with adult males who were severely retarded. I was seventeen. That was a very intense experience.

How did it affect you as a writer?

It was this very immediate, non­authoritative relationship that you were having with other human beings. And it was a very primal one. They’re sick and helpless. You can give something to them. They are relating to you on this very, very basic level: life and death. In a hospital, you talk about things you don’t talk about in other places. You discuss your spiritual life. Their transience. Your transience. Because all the other stuff is irrelevant.

And did you go on to study journalism?

No. I’d studied the art of India and Asia as a graduate student. I was teaching an Indian and Islamic art course at Columbia, and began writing as a freelance critic for Art in America and other publications.

Could you talk about how you came to the Times and  your role there?

While I was teaching at Columbia, I got a call from the Times. I did freelance work for them for a few years, and then they asked if I’d be on staff, and so I said, “Yeah.”

And what about your role there?There are actually three full-time art critics at the paper: Michael Kimmelman (who’s based in Berlin), Roberta Smith, and you. Was it your own decision to write so extensively about Asian art?

One of the reasons the Times asked me to work for them was my background in Asian art. I did try to make it clear that I didn’t want to be the Asian art writer exclusively. I did not want to be restricted—it’s all interrelated for me.

Let’s jump ahead to last summer, during which you wrote several stories about China for the Times. The first (on page one, no less) was a piece about the Chinese museum scene. In another, you explored the Buddhist sculptures in Dunhuang, at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Were these pieces prompted by the Olympics?

Yes. They were supposed to provide some cultural background. But my trip to Dunhuang was a logical extension of layers of interest I’ve had for years. I went backward in Buddhism. The first Buddhist art I studied was Japanese—in my thirties, I wandered around rural temples in Japan. After that, I thought it would be interesting to go to India and see where the whole thing got started. Then there was all this stuff in between, and Dunhuang was a crucial piece of that historical puzzle for me.

Your personal and journalistic adventures meshed.

Oh, yeah. Beautifully. And nobody at the paper gave me any direction: go here; go there. I’ve always been self-directed, and the paper has encouraged that.

In your Dunhuang piece, you make it clear that you are not, in fact, a Buddhist yourself.

Well, that was important for me to say. I don’t want people to read what I’m writing as advocacy for a particular faith. I’m coming at this from another place, a human place. I’m hungry for these experiences. Delighted by them. Puzzled by them. The same place that you, the reader, are in. I’ve been lucky to have had this experience, and now I am giving that luck to others.

So the art critic is a kind of caretaker for certain objects or experiences?

I do feel that. Objects represent us. They aren’t just manufactured things. They really are extensions of us, particularly art objects, which have been made with a certain amount of love. It’s also important to remember that a lot of art has been made for terrible reasons. These are objects of power. And they’re persuasive ones. They are beautiful, even though they were meant to advertise power in negative ways.

Perhaps this sense of criticism as a form of caretaking explains why your style often seems so insistently personal.

Again, I would like others to have the same experience I have had. That is basically what it comes down to—sharing this joy. I don’t feel authoritative about it. I feel like I’m on the same level with my readers.

So conveying your experience is almost as important as giving an opinion?

I think that’s true. My favorite critics are not art critics, but dance critics. Especially Edwin Denby. I like to read them best—not for stylistic reasons, but because the subject they are writing about is a very ephemeral thing. It basically doesn’t exist beyond the performance. The only record is what you write about it, with the kind of language that captures it on the fly. I think of art the same way. There is no objective perspective on it that makes sense to me, really. We’re here for a very short time. We’re here together. We won’t be here very long. The experience is so personal, so fleeting, that I just want to capture it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Allan M. Jalon writes often about the arts for the Los Angeles Times and other publications. His work as a reporter and critic has appeared in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as various magazines.