Kimmelman was born and raised in Greenwich Village, the son of a physician and a sculptor, both civil rights activists. He attended PS 41 and Friends Seminary in Manhattan, graduated summa cum laude from Yale College with the Alice Derby Lang prize in classics and a degree in history, and received his graduate degree in art history from Harvard University, where he was an Arthur Kingsley Porter Fellow.
He was the New York Times' longtime chief art critic – "the most acute American art critic of his generation," in the words of the Australian writer Robert Hughes. In 2007, Kimmelman created the Abroad column, as a foreign correspondent covering culture, political and social affairs across Europe and elsewhere.
He returned to New York from Europe in autumn 2011 as the paper's senior critic and architecture critic, and his articles since then, on Penn Station, sound, climate change, the New York Public Library, the World Trade Center, transit and infrastructure, redevelopment after Hurricane Sandy, as well as on Syrian refugee camps as do-it-yourself cities, cultural identity in Baghdad and public space and protest in Turkey, Rio and post-revolutionary Cairo, among other issues at home and overseas, have helped to reshape policy and the public debate about urbanism, architecture and architectural criticism. ArchDaily called his 2015 review of the new Whitney Museum "the most important article in recent architectural memory." For that review and other work he won the Punch Sulzberger award from the American Society of News Editors in 2016.
The magazine New York titled an article about him "The People's Critic".
A pianist (a former student of Seymour Bernstein) who still performs as a soloist and with chamber groups on concert series in New York and around Europe, he was an editor at the magazine I.D. and architecture critic for New England Monthly. He has written at length about, among others, the artists Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michael Heizer, Lucian Freud, Raymond Pettibon and Matthew Barney along with the architects Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Ban, Peter Zumthor and Oscar Niemeyer. Author of Portraits and The Accidental Masterpiece, a national bestseller, for two years he was associated with the New York Times's Cities For Tomorrow conference, organizing the ones in 2014 and 2015. He has hosted various television features, appearing in the 2007 documentary film My Kid Could Paint That.
From late 2007 to mid-2011 he was based in Berlin covering, among other subjects, the crackdown on cultural freedom in Vladimir Putin's Russia, life in Gaza under Hamas, the rise of the far-right in Hungary, Négritude in France, bullfighting in contemporary Spain, Czech humor in the context of political protest, and Holocaust education for a new generation of Germans.
For his role in saving the David & Gladys Wright House by Frank Lloyd Wright, Kimmelman received the Spirit Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2014. He was the Annie Sonnenblick Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University in 2016. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2014 Franke Visiting Fellow at The Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, where he had also been a Poynter Fellow, he has received honorary doctorates from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 2013 and the Pratt Institute in May, 2014.
An adjunct professor on the faculty of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Kimmelman has delivered the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library and contributes regularly to The New York Review of Books.The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (Penguin Press, 2005)
Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere (Random House, 1998)
Oscar Niemeyer (Assouline, 2009)
Studies in Modern Art: The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century (Harry N. Abrams, 1994)
More Things Like This (McSweeney's/Chronicle Books, 2009)
Playing Piano for Pleasure by Charles Cooke, foreword by Michael Kimmelman (Skyhorse, 2011)
Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space, foreword by Michael Kimmelman (New Village Press, 2012)
The Olympic City photographs by Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit, foreword by Michael Kimmelman (2013)
Shigeru Ban: Humanitarian Architecture, essay by Michael Kimmelman (Aspen Art Press and D.A.P., 2014)
City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares Around the World, introduction by Michael Kimmelman (Harper Collins, 2016)