Art Critics and the Pulitzer Prize: How Many Have Won the Sought-After Award?

Tessa Solomon


May 6, 2020 5:40pm

Jerry Saltz and a Frank Benson sculpture at Andrew Kreps.

On Monday, the Pulitzer Center announced that Christopher Knight, an art critic who has written for the Los Angeles Times since 1989, had won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. He is now one of just a few art critics to have ever won the award. To survey the others, ARTnews assembled a guide to the art critics who’ve received the award since it was launched 50 years ago. For this guide, only full-time art critics were surveyed, which means that winners such as Hilton Als and Manuela Hoelterhoff are not included.

Emily Genauer, of Newsday Syndicate (1974)
Throughout her tenure at the Newsday Syndicate, Emily Genauer helped introduce American audiences to 20th-century artists like Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera. Her championship of such artists cost her at least one job; in 1949, the publisher of the New York World took issue with her praise of what were considered “communists and left-wingers.” “Predictably,” she wrote in 1973, “there will be visitors to the new museum who protest that all Chagalls are alike. But it is no less true of El Greco, with his attenuated, pulsing saints; of Giacometti, with his stick-thin bronze figures…of practically all artists, excepting Rembrandt and just possibly Picasso.”

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Henry Allen, of the Washington Post (2000)Allen, culture critic for the Washington Post and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer, was selected for his “fresh and authoritative writing on photography.” In “Man of Many Faces, None His Own,” one of the articles that earned Allen the award, he wrote, “A photograph isn’t just paper and chemicals, it’s also time, the instant and visible sense of something that happened in a moment Back Then—not a vision of the lost past as much as a vision of a lost and antique present.”

Mark Feeney, of the Boston Globe (2008)
Feeney began his career at the Globe in 1979, where wrote articles ranging from political commentary to book, art, and film reviews. He was a finalist for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for “Wing Tips on the Beach,” an article about Richard Nixon personal life and political career. His winning articles on Edward Hopper’s distinctly American solitude and the photography of Jeff Wall. Regarding he latter artist, he wrote, “It’s so natural to stare at the people in a work of art—they so completely accept our gaze—and that is no small part of art’s pleasure. Jeff Wall’s pictures don’t work that way. They make us avert our gaze even as we look at them.”

Holland Cotter, of the New York Times (2009)
Holland Cotter first joined the Times as a freelancer in 1992, before being hired as a full-time critic in 1998. A longtime advocate for Asian contemporary art, he was honored in part for a series on the burgeoning Chinese contemporary art scene prompted by a visit in 2008. Cotter began his career at the quarterly New York Arts Journal, followed by editorial tenures at Art in America and ARTnews, before landing at the Times. Speaking to the Harvard Crimson in 2009, Cotter said of being a critic, “It wasn’t anything I set out as a career path for myself. It was something I enjoyed and that became the main thing that I do.”

Sebastian Smee, of the Boston Globe (2011)
Smee, who now writes for the Washington Post, was an art critic for the Boston Globe when he won his Pulitzer. He joined. that publication after serving as the national art critic for the Australian in Sydney, which followed a stint at the Art Newspaper. His award-winning articles focus on the influence of Degas and Picasso, the painter Luis Meléndez, and the contentious, oft-forgotten relationship patron Isabella Stewart Gardner had with Modernism. Five years after winning his Pulitzer, Smee published the widely praised book The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

Philip Kennicott, of the Washington Post (2013)
Prior to becoming the chief art and architecture critic for the Washington Post in 1999, Kennicott was in the music world: he was chief classical music critic for the Detroit News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he had been a New York–based editor at Musical America and Chamber Music magazines. A two-time Pulitzer finalist, Kennicott won for articles that included “Why Do We Stare?,” an examination of the human desire to view violent imagery. “The fear that we may be attracted to and corrupted by images of suffering is nothing new,” he wrote. “Define pain to include emotional distress, humiliation and even mild embarrassment, and one realizes that we spend an extraordinary amount of our lives taking pleasure in photographs of the hurt of others.”

Jerry Saltz, of New York (2018)
As New York magazine’s senior art critic, Jerry Saltz, who was shortlisted as a finalist in 2001 and 2006, won a Pulitzer for articles including “My Life as a Failed Artist,” a personal essay recounting the formative experience of his attempted art career. “I want my criticism to reflect the hell I went through as an artist—to look, even with work I do not appreciate at first blush, for the sign of the soul yelping at me from within or behind,” he wrote in the article. Prior to joining New York, he was the senior art critic at the now-defunct Village Voice from 1998 to 2007, where the outspoken writer established his voice through pithy reviews. Earlier this year, Saltz published a book called How to Be an Artist that was based on a similarly titled New York cover story.

Christopher Knight, of the Los Angeles Times (2020)LACMA’s $650 million new building, designed by Peter Zumthor, has divided Los Angeles residents and the greater art community in recent months, with Knight among the project’s vocal detractors. His lengthy argument against it won him the Pulitzer. In an open letter to Zumthor, Knight wrote, “Art objects get authentic context from other works of art…A displaced art object gets its primary illumination not from a grand new building, nor from wall labels or chattering people (including critics).” Knight, a three-time finalist for the prize, has also won prestigious journalism awards including the $50,000 Rabkin Prize Lifetime Achievement Award and the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award.


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