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?