Times art critic offers tips

Art critic Holland Cotter spoke about his career and the field of criticism at the Yale University Art Gallery Tuesday.
Art critic Holland Cotter spoke about his career and the field of criticism at the Yale University Art Gallery Tuesday. Photo by Phyllis Tuchman.

In “Criticism: Taking it Personally,” Pulitzer Prize- winner and New York Times art critic Holland Cotter broke down his approach to the field.

In addition to discussing the more technical aspects of writing such as meeting deadlines and avoiding predictable language, Cotter tackled broader issues concerning art criticism, such as the relevance of being an art critic in today’s world.

“Art criticism today is a luxury item,”Cotter said. “Unlike film or book reviews, very few people read art reviews to see whether they should spend an afternoon in Chelsea shopping for paintings.”

Cotter described his path toward becoming a critic as an “indirect” one. He started out as an academic writer in the 1980s and said he was in the middle of his doctoral thesis at Columbia when he received a call from The New York Times asking him to review an exhibit. Cotter said the review turned into several, and when he was offered a position as a staff writer, he convinced the Columbia faculty to waive his thesis due date indefinitely. Twenty years after taking the job at The Times, Cotter said he is technically still a graduate student.

In his talk, organized by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, Cotter said that he hoped to encourage budding art critics. Often, he said, those just starting a career in criticism tend to be hesitant in proffering their opinions, while others are too eager to give prematurely negative comments.

“The art world tends to live on a diet of tempests and teapots,” Cotter said.

Over the course of his 20-year career at The Times, Cotter said that he was impelled to broaden his own artistic “taste” to become a better critic.

While his primary passion lies in Buddhist and South Asian art, Cotter has also reviewed numerous exhibits inspired by the Western canon for The Times, from exhibitions of contemporary art to traditional old master paintings. He added that while he studied poetry during his undergraduate years, a single survey course in art history put him on the path towards becoming a critical writer.

“Cotter’s genuine willingness to very openly and thoughtfully engage art created across all cultures and times is what distinguishes him from so many critics writing today,” Art Gallery Director Jock Reynolds said in an email. “He also writes clearly and beautifully, which is also why people enjoy reading what he has to say.”

When writing reviews, Cotter said that his focus is only on the reader, not on the artist or academic writing. The transition from academic writing to writing for magazines and finally for The Times took him a long time to adjust to, Cotter said, adding that he still has trouble condensing his thoughts into the requisite 600-word articles.

“The most immediate crisis for any of us writers is how to meet your deadlines,” he said, adding that he compares writing a critical review of a painting to the act of painting itself, saying that both processes were layered and complex.

Director of the Yale Center for British Art Amy Meyers said that Cotter has approached art criticism as a constant “re-education.” By continually teaching himself, Meyers said, Cotter also teaches his public and in the process has transformed the field of art criticism.

Cotter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009 and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Art writing by the College Art Association in 2010.

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