Marek Bartelik PhD is the President of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). During the Art and Reality forum, arterritory.com took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his road to a career in art criticism from... his previous job in civil engineering, as well as his preferences in contemporary art, Marek Bartelik’s distinctive approach to selecting the subjects of his art critiques and his thoughts on where the Rembrandts and Cézannes of our time are hiding.
There is usually a system to the way in which people tend to set about building a career in the arts: they attend some sort of classes, art circles, then move on to professional training and complete their studies while still in their twenties. As far as I know, things were a bit different in your case...
Yes, I first spent two years at École des Beaux Arts in Paris and then went back to theUSA. I wanted to choose something quite specific and practical and decided that civil engineering was just the thing for me. I graduated formColumbiaUniversityand worked for some three or four years worked at a company that dealt with bridge construction. At some point I realised that it was over. It was around the time that I had a very intriguing conversation with this artist I interviewed inParis. He was 92, I was 30. He asked me how old I was. I told him and expected to hear that I was still very young or something along those lines. What he said, however, was: ‘Well... It’s time for you to focus on things you really want to do with your life.’ I went back toNew Yorkand, after another couple of months on the job, quit. And the whole of my previous life collapsed. And I started doing what I really wanted to do. It was by no means easy. Getting a PhD is way more complicated in theUSAthan it is inEurope; first you have to complete a multitude of courses in a number of disciplines. It took me some ten years or so. And yet this turnabout was probably the best thing I had done in my whole life. During my study years, I was asked by Art Forum to write a piece, which made me feel that I was no longer just a student – I was also already a professional. And yet my technical education was also not wasted on me: it taught me to discipline and focus my thinking; I also had acquired a taste for logics...
I do think that, in some occupations, a second professional training may be quite important. It allows one to mix and combine certain skills.
It is probably the same old left hemisphere – right hemisphere thing. In my life, it really does work. On the other hand, I am perfectly aware that I would never, ever go back to engineering...
Because you are not likely to get to apply your art critic skills?
Or, more likely, because I was too fascinated with design, the appearance of things while I was working in civil engineering.
So now you are teaching and writing for art publications?
Yes. I have been writing for Art Forum for over twenty years now, and it is a fantastic magazine. I love it that they let me write the way I like and on subjects I like. Which is the reason why I only write art reviews when I am travelling. I go someplace – toSaint Petersburg, for instance – visit art shows and look for something interesting to write about.
Like a free hunter?
Quite. It is, in a way, an adventure. I love it that I do not have a preconception of what I have to see. I just walk around and look at things. And if I happen to write an article on someone who has not been covered by Art Forum as yet, an artist from Riga, say – all the better. For instance, I recently did a piece on a young female artist from South Korea; it was only her first or maybe second solo exhibition. It is a nomad way of doing my job. And I love it that I am free not to belong to a single place, a single scene; it makes it possible for me to escape the status quo of the system: I am constantly on the move. When in theUSA, I only write articles on the history of art criticism; I write and publish books and yet I never review American art shows. >>