passages

Warren Niesluchowski (1946–2019)

R.H. Quaytman, Portrait of Warren Niesluchowski, Chapter 35, 2019, silkscreen ink, oil, gesso on wood, 20 x 32 1/3".

IN EARLY MAY I started to receive emails from friends who were at the professional viewing days for the Venice Biennale. No, they weren’t wondering where I was, why I wasn’t there. They were asking, instead, if I knew anything about the whereabouts of the one person without whom such an event felt incomplete: Did I know if Warren Niesluchowski was coming?

Warren wouldn’t be making it to Venice this time, I had to tell them. He was in a hospital bed in New York—the latest (and, it would turn out, the last) of the many temporary accommodations he’d had the use of over the past two decades.

Why so many people across the United States and Europe considered Warren a necessary presence at any art event might be hard for others to understand. He had no defined role: neither artist nor curator nor critic, and certainly not a dealer or collector. “Unstable as to residence yet a permanent fixture in our imagination,” as the anthropologist Michael Taussig told me, “his lifestyle was wildly subversive. He had no job, no visible means of support, no apartment, no clothes”—not true, actually, since he dressed with incomparable style, thanks to his profound familiarity with the thrift shops of two continents—“no health insurance, no bus nor subway ticket, but plenty of European languages. He was a fearless wanderer who came and went without apparent reason.” And he was the ideal audience, full of imagination and attention and voluble, incisive commentary filled with polylingual wordplay. Of course, it’s also true that there was an ulterior necessity behind his attendance: He needed to see and be seen in order to find hospitality. He survived thanks to the kindness of his friends, one of whom always seemed to be able to supply a temporary berth, a spare bed for a few nights (which might turn into a few weeks), perhaps an opportunity to cat-sit.

Warren wasn’t his name, by the way. When he was born to Polish parents in a refugee camp in Altenstadt, Germany, where he spent the first five years of his life—years he never referred to in my hearing, or that of most others I’ve asked about him—he was Jerzy Niesłuchowski. Later, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he grew up, his name was anglicized to George. In Europe, a deserter from the Vietnam War–era US Army, he became involved in the theater—Bread and Puppet, Jerzy Grotowski—and, without a passport, accepted one no longer needed by a British actor who’d changed his name. He was now Warren. It was when he returned to the US that he combined his new first name with his old last one and became Warren Niesluchowski. And yet later in life, at least for some, he retained a scrap of his old identity: In emails to Polish friends, he would sign off as “Warren NiesluchowskiJeż’”—the added Polish word being an echo of his first given name, but also the word for hedgehog. But unlike the hedgehog of whom Archilochus wrote, he knew many things.

Back in the US after amnesty was offered to Vietnam-era deserters, he enrolled as an undergraduate at Harvard. Among those who knew him in Cambridge was the writer Chris Kraus. “Warren was living in a barely converted storefront,” she recalled. “It was knee deep with books and flea market curiosities, and the first time I saw it my heart sank because I realized then he was probably autistic and he’d never finish his degree or become famous in his profession, when he was exactly the kind of person who should. He carried a black doctor’s bag as a briefcase, backpack, suitcase.”

And yet he did achieve a sort of renown, as Kraus found when she ran into him again in the late 1980s, in New York. As she said, “He was everywhere . . . and especially in the art world. He knew everyone and went out constantly and his instinct for what was actually, artistically, and socially important was impeccable. If Warren attended your opening or performance on a given night, it was an endorsement, almost better than a Village Voice review. He became a professional ‘friend of the artist,’ not merely attending gallery dinners but spending days in people’s studios, helping out and talking—at least, by his account—and the list of artists he was friends with was a roll call of who really mattered in art world, who was not just famous, but artistically important.” When I knew him, the list of artists to whom he was devoted was long and multigenerational: Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Anthony McCall, Raymond Pettibon, Seth Price, R. H. Quaytman, Lawrence Weiner, and Krzysztof Wodiczko are among the names I remember hearing most often, along with that of Simon Leung, who made two extraordinary video works about Warren, Warren Piece, 1993, and War After War, 2001.

After asking people about their memories of Warren, I noticed something many of us have in common: We can’t remember exactly when or how we met him. Little by little he was there, and he insinuated himself into our lives. As the curator Adam Szymczyk put it, “Warren’s presence would establish itself inconspicuously and connect people beyond contingencies of time and location. It is as if he was always there—everywhere—and at the same time not there, always present and only sometimes appearing.” That appearance was striking. Szymczyk continued: “I remember his look, slim and tall man in tight pants and suit jacket, narrow ties, patterned shirts and colorful socks, pointed leather shoes, wave of gray hair, a handbag. All worn, covered with dust of the road, impeccably assembled attire. He was always in focus, (gray-blue?) eyes behind the glasses alert, curious, calm. His warm smile and bursts of sudden, dry laughter.”

Warren’s often-declared inability to complete any undertaking made him unemployable—not that he was ever looking for employment. But for a brief time, before I knew him, he was Alanna Heiss’s assistant at PS1. “I was the only one who ever hired Warren in a full-time real job,” she said. “Or so he frequently told me.” Given his enormous erudition and capacious memory, not to mention his fluency in five languages, she said, “I confidently thought that I could conquer the Impossible Warren, and emerge victorious with the Reformed Warren, based on my notable success in producing and curating some of the arguably most insane and unpredictable and illogical artists walking this earth. Not so.” His very talents caused problems. “My precious Rolodex, which recorded the critical and often-secret names and addresses of artists worldwide, eventually just disappeared. In charge of my office, Warren needed no Rolodex as he remembered all numbers and names. Same with papers and letters and any written material. Schedules? No problem. Lists? Not necessary. Installation charts? Unnecessary. All in Warren’s head. When the Museum of Modern Art digitalized P.S.1 documentation, they found a curious lapse in paperwork during Warren’s tenure.” When he was asked to take charge of the wall texts and labels for a massive exhibition of art from the Stalinist Soviet Union, everything seemed to be humming along, until, “Five days before the show, Warren disappeared. Of course we feared death by starvation, heart attack, murder, but never did I dream that he would simply HIDE away with all the relevant paper. The show opened with very limited labels, created by all-day, all-night work of Soviet German and New York curators piecing together memories, pictures, and telephonic advice. The later effort in the weeks following was Herculean. Several weeks later, Warren emerged shamefaced and apologetic. He explained he couldn’t turn in such an imperfect product.”

By avoiding all responsibilities, the Warren I later knew avoided the possibility of such disasters. He would periodically refer, mysteriously, to some “project” with which he was assisting some artist friend—perhaps doing translations—but as soon as it became a paid job he would freeze and abandon the field. He could exist in a gift economy, not in an economy of direct exchange, and part of his friends’ love for him stems from their gratitude toward him for inducting them into this gift economy or (borrowing David Graeber’s phrase) baseline communism.

If Warren made himself welcome everywhere he went, he seems to have been most deeply appreciated in Poland, and especially among expatriated Poles wherever they are. They became something like the home he never had. Curator Monika Szewczyk wrote that “whenever he would see me he would pronounce in his postwar Polish: Cześć Monika. Making slang sound gallant. I can hear it now. He had beautiful diction. No drawn out vowels, really nice and simple. It’s rare to hear my name pronounced correctly since I emigrated age ten, but there was this gentle man without a fixed address to remind me where I came from.” I’m told that this fine diction did not preclude grammatical errors, but that these only made his Polish speech more charming.

But he was a stranger everywhere. Szymczyk explains: “I think the name Niesluchowski is a toponym derived from a village Niesluchow (near Lviv), which is now in Ukraine and was part of Poland before World War II (or another village of this name, but the one now in Ukraine is probably the best known). Etymologically, Niesluchow means ‘a place of those who do not listen’ or ‘do not obey the rules’ (nie sluchac = not listen, not follow). If one remembers that until well into the nineteenth century, and in fact until the Russian Revolution, the (Ukrainian) peasants in East Poland were considered ‘souls’ belonging to the land-owning (Polish) gentry, who could at any time move them to another village or imprison them for disobedience, Niesluchowski sounds like a person coming from such place of disobedience.” He died at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York on June 18.

Barry Schwabsky is coeditor of International Reviews for Artforum. His most recent book is Heretics of Language (Black Square Editions, 2018).

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