The influences that shaped me as a writer came from teachers in several disciplines. Many of these people I never actually met.
Writers/thinkers. As feminine-identified gay kid, a loner who also wanted to be part of a big world, I found heroes in Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë (I read Wuthering Heights four, five times by age thirteen), and later George Eliot. The 19th-century Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell loomed large as a role model. So did self-described yogi Henry David Thoreau. (I grew up near Walden.) When I was sixteen, older friends—all my friends were older: Nina, David, Cello, Jane, Lee—gave me James Baldwin, the next big step; and Krishnamurti. (These were late Beatnik days.)
Music. My father loved jazz and gospel; my mother, opera: Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Maria Callas were the harmonic lodestars of childhood. Later Jimi Hendrix (at Boston Garden). Sun Ra (on Boston Common). Regine Crespin, Leontyne Price, Leonie Rysanek, Teresa Stratas on the Metropolitan Opera’s spring tour (Boston always first stop).
Art. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, with its year-round Easter flowers, was home on winter weekends. A woman’s house, filled with a woman’s choices, placed exactly so. Rembrandt and Titian in the salons, the party rooms; a small, true gem, Fra Angelico’s blue-and-gold The Death and Assumption of the Virgin, hidden beside a fireplace, facing out a window, where you wouldn’t find it unless you were a persistent looker. Once found, forever yours.
And a quick walk away, the Museum of Fine Arts. Anyone who puts in regular wandering time there ends up in the Japanese galleries. They were once larger than now, but the thing I went for, the Buddhist Temple Room, is still intact. It’s a dark enclosed circle of life-size carved bodhisattvas, teaching and dreaming, and you in the middle.
As a college lit major in need of a “science” credit, I found one in an anthropology course called “Primitive Art,” taught in an ethnology museum with great African holdings. It was a conversion experience, one extended and deepened by an Africa-studying classmate/lover. (William Henry; bless his memory). Almost all the Western contemporary forms I would later learn about and write about—painting, sculpture, installation, conceptual art, land art, performance, sound art, social practice—were already there in the African art I saw then.
After college: Europe; Japan; North Africa; pick-up jobs; more people. In New York, I lived with artists way downtown, below the World Trade Center, and began reviewing art, freelance. But I soon knew I didn’t know enough and went back to school, nights, at Hunter College. This was my first full formal art education, and I had wonderful teachers. Mary B. Moore (Greek Art), Richard Stapleford (Roman), Lisa Vergara (Baroque), Wayne Dynes (Medieval), Janet Cox-Rearick and Howard Davis (Italian Renaissance), Rosalind Krauss (Modern), and Ulku Bates (Chinese and Islamic).
Ulku Bates’s Islamic course was another corner-turner. For her introductory lecture she showed an hour and a half of rapid-fire images of old and new treasures: mosques, in Africa, India, Iran, Turkey, East Asia, and Queens, New York, interspersed with pictures of illuminated books, musical instruments, ceramics and textiles. The final image—the final Islamic treasure—was a snapshot of an elderly man and woman sitting side by side in an Istanbul apartment. “This is my mother and father,” she said.
Home and the world. Local and global. Personal history and art history. Inseparable. That course took me to Kashmir to do some research, which took me to India, to see early Buddhist art, which took me back to New York to STUDY AT a different school, while simultaneously writing about new art in the identity-conscious, global-thinking AIDS-stricken 1990s. A ndso on.
HOLLAND COTTER is an art critic at the New York Times. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.