Pulitzer Committee Honors Alumnus

Holland Cotter ’70, an art critic for the New York Times, received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism on Monday at Columbia University.

Cotter received his award for four articles about art in China, which he wrote during a trip there last summer before the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Awarded since 1970, The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism honors “distinguished criticism, in print or online,” according to the Pulitzer Web site.

Cotter has been on staff at the New York Times since 1998, focusing on the New York City arts scene and non-western art.

While a student at Harvard, he studied English literature and was an editor for the Advocate.

A native of Boston, the journalist said that he was raised in a family that loved music, books, and art. As a teenager in the sixties, Cotter said that he was heavily influenced by a combination of Boston’s strong Asian art collections and the culturally pioneering times.

Cotter said he knew that he wanted to study literature at Harvard, specifically with renowned American poet Robert Lowell. As a freshman in 1966, Cotter enrolled in Lowell’s graduate seminar.

The first art course Cotter took was a result of him seeking to fulfill a science requirement. He enrolled in a “primitive art” class in the Anthropology Department that was cross-registered with the Art History Department. It was this course that introduced him to the Peabody Museum, where he spent much of his time as an undergraduate.

After college, Cotter ended up in New York City where he first worked on The New York Arts Journal, a quarterly that covered all areas of art, from the fine arts to fiction. His articles were noticed by Art in America, and a job there eventually led to another at the New York Times.

“It wasn’t anything I set out as a career path for myself,” Cotter said of his career as an art critic. “It was something I enjoyed and that became the main thing that I do.”

During the 1970s, at the onset of Cotter’s journalistic career, most articles about non-western art centered on their sale value and not on their merit, according to Suzanne P. Blier, a professor of fine art and African and African American studies.

Cotter became known for his articles covering non-western art forms in a serious and intellectual manner, she said.

“He’s a man of extraordinary brilliance and compassion with an intellectual wingspan that covers the globe.”

Cotter was hesitant to take full credit for the adulation that his work has received.

“I don’t consider it a prize to one person,” he said. “It is a prize to the journalism community and the New York Times in general.”

But Blier insisted that the award rightfully honors Cotter’s contributions to the art world. “It says that the arts he covers are worthy of and indeed demand a sort of intellectual rigor and a provocative in-depth analysis that he brings to bear on them,” she said.