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Dominik Lejman, Portrait of a Philosopher (Warren Niesluchowski), 2012–13, acrylic on canvas, video projection, 3'.

Warren Niesluchowski (1946–2019)

Warren Niesluchowski, a translator, writer, and nomad who made himself welcome around the globe, has died. He was seventy-two. Niesluchowski, who befriended, collaborated, and shared his erudition with countless artists, was known as an enduringly unfixed artworld fixture whose transient lifestyle—which often depended on serendipitous generosity—inspired philosophical questions for many about home, exile, and family, and led at least one critic to consider Niesluchowski’s entire existence a kind of artwork.

Born in 1946 to a Polish couple in a displaced persons camp in Altenstadt, Germany, Niesluchowski immigrated with his family to the United States and grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He attended the College of the Holy Cross in nearby Worcester. After deserting the army in 1968, Niesluchowski lived abroad, meeting and traveling with the Bread and Puppet Theater as well as studying with Jerzy Grotowski. When Gerald Ford offered amnesty to deserters in 1974, he returned to the US and later enrolled in Harvard University as an undergraduate (he stayed many years but never earned his degree). A chance meeting on a train with Alanna Heiss, director of PS1, led him to move to New York in 1991 to work with her as assistant to the director. In addition to a job, he’d found his family—the artists he admired and who in turn appreciated his original personality. Later, he worked as a freelance editor for the academic publisher Routledge. But after losing his East Village apartment around the turn of the millennium, he began a life of vagabondage, traveling and appearing at art and literary events across Europe and the US—and at people’s doorsteps—as what critic Barry Schwabsky called a “perpetual guest.” But he wasn’t a couch surfer, exactly. Through his vast social circle, Niesluchowski would insert himself into the lives of various hosts in a way that verged on performance, staying for days and often leaving possessions—a suitcase, a leather coat, a batch of books—at his temporary homes to make room for more.

“In a sense, Warren is always testing his hosts’ capacity for hospitality,” Schwabsky wrote in an essay on Niesluchowski for The Nation. “How long can a passing visit be extended before it becomes—before it threatens to become—something more like cohabitation? What are the limits to one’s hospitality, one’s toleration? You don’t just take Warren in; you take him on.” 

Artist Simon Leung has made two feature-length video portraits of Niesluchowski’s life, Warren Piece, 1993, and War After War, 2011. The former debuted at PS1, where Niesluchowski once worked. “I think about my work with him as a set of ethical propositions—how to be with the other, and how to come closer to someone while they remain essentially a stranger,” Leung told Artforum in a 2016 interview about War After War. Leung added: “He’s able to lead a life that looks a bit like bare life, on the edges of the art world, but it isn’t really, since the art world is a particular kind of stage. In order for him to find people who would put him up, for example, he needs the art world as a receiver for the type of signal that he sends. Some people ascribe a sort of spiritual dimension to the way Warren lives. Perhaps they understand guest plus host equals ghost.”

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