Warren Niesłuchowski: In Search of an Adoption by an Imaginary Family

A version of this obituary, written by Joanna Warsza, was first published in Polish on 3 July 2019 in Gazeta Wyborcza

Someone who seemed immortal has died: Warren Niesłuchowski, born Jerzy, later anglicized as George, and also known as “Jeż.” Citizen of the world and the art world, ontological nomad, vagabond, companion of artists, translator, polyglot, polymath, walking bibliography, networker without status, and accidental witness to important events. He was 72 years old.

Warren was born in a displaced persons camp in Altenstadt, Germany in 1946. Five years later, the family emigrated to the United States. At that time, only those with invitations from potential hosts offering to cover the costs of the refugees’ first months of arrival could be resettled. As his sister Mary told me, someone from New Jersey was supposed to welcome the Niesłuchowski family, but when the ship arrived in New York, the “sponsor” failed to show up. So the family settled in Massachusetts, supported by a farmer on Cape Cod, later moving to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Warren’s father got a job as a baker.

In 1968, while awaiting his orders to go to Vietnam, George deserted and fled the country for Paris. This is where he found his new identity after a friendly Englishman named Warren gave him his British passport, into which George pasted his own picture. Soon he had joined the legendary Bread and Puppet troupe on their trip to Iran, and later collaborated with Grotowski’s laboratory theater in Wrocław.

An inheritance of travel, displacement, wandering, and resettlement were to be the only permanent features in his very fluid life. Warren was in a sense ontologically homeless; homeless not only by birth, but also by choice. He felt at home everywhere and nowhere. He worked in many languages simultaneously and used them alternately, often referring to Greek or Latin sources. Though he studied a large number of subjects at Harvard and other institutions, the notion of dedicating himself to any single discipline seemed too limiting and he never completed a formal degree.

Like a Russian yurodivy, he refused a stable lifestyle and the cultivation of his personal and professional life. He had no desire for personal property, although he stashed belongings everywhere and left suitcases behind in many places. He lived in permanent conversation and dialogue, practicing hospitality and kindness—and testing their limits—within the many intimate friendships that he built over the years.

He was thoroughly without self-interest, although his life was de facto based on the generosity of others. In return, he offered time and attention but never to implement the next project or to be invited to the next event or biennale. On the contrary, whenever I worked with Warren as an editor or translator, it was impossible to pay him a fee, not because he did not have a bank account but rather because of his inherent refusal of this form of interpersonal contract. He did not hesitate to accept offers, to borrow money for tickets, or to use, and sometimes abuse, others’ generosity, but to formally earn money—never. He preferred the economy of exchange. “I’m not looking for a job,” he used to say.

I once attended a panel discussion in which Warren was supposed to be a moderator. He did not ask a single question throughout the evening; the format eluded his logic. Generally, he was not eager to take responsibility; his preferred mode was to stand aside, and serve others with erudition, sensitivity, a good heart, and, above all, empathy.

I do not know how, but about ten years ago our friendship turned into a kind of tender arrangement whereby whenever Warren was my guest, he would also become a host on my behalf, my shadow curator who took care of invitees, or in the final years, even sometimes of my young son. He was capable of a special connection with a variety of people of all ages. Through the years, he supported me immensely and followed my guests and me to projects that I worked on, from Gdynia and Warsaw to Berlin and New York, usually referring to me as his “producer.” In April 2018, he came to Munich, where I had curated the Public Art Munich exhibition. “Only for the opening,” he said, but he stayed intermittently for three months, in guest rooms of various organizations, hotels, artists’ studios, galleries, and even in a caravan and an office. In return, he welcomed artists, lecturers, visiting students, journalists, and partners; he offered them attention and conversation, chaperoned them around, guided them through projects by contextualizing the works within the discourses of art, philosophy, and politics, or simply served as a walking bibliography.

Citing the philosopher Jacques Derrida and his theory of hospitality, he often signed off his emails with “host + guest = ghost.” The phrase was meant to show how the guest irreversibly transforms the host and, more broadly, the concept of radical hospitality. Those who offered their apartments for housesitting would sometimes never find out that wherever he stayed, he became the charming host, the Other chez soi. He appeared unexpectedly in the most unforeseen of places, sometimes disrupting the order of the day, the routine, and offering the possibility of a spontaneous change in plans. He made his way to vernissages and events from Kalisz to London, Sokołowsko to Toronto, Dobre to Mexico City; meanwhile, he had his mail sent to the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. He wanted to be wherever his friends were, and he always got there the cheapest way possible and on the spur of the moment. From time to time, he was offered a VIP package, such as for the opening of documenta 14 in Athens. Given his penchant for always being in the right place at the right time, he was often a witness to important events, exhibitions, and meetings. He was a networker before the concept existed, a man of influence who was nevertheless not building toward a particular status.

Not everyone was open to accepting or hosting Warren, of course; not everyone had the patience. Especially in recent years, the commercialization of hospitality through the increasing popularity of couch surfing, Airbnb, and other services of this type, as well as the loosening of the social fabric on which he relied, made it increasingly difficult for Warren to find a residence. His health was deteriorating and he sometimes wondered if his nomadism, which had lasted over a decade, was slowly coming to an end.

Before he decided in 2003 to be permanently on the road, he had held various jobs, among them a position at PS1 in New York (by pure chance, having met the director on the Warsaw-Berlin train), and even rented his own flat. After sixteen years of travel, close the end of his life, he sometimes talked about staying with his cousins in Ukraine, or settling down in Mexico.

In February 2019, he was diagnosed with cancer, but things declined so rapidly that it was as if he had decided that a non-nomadic life was not a life at all. Only now, after his sudden death have I realized that his intercontinental friends did not really know much about each other, even if their phone numbers always appeared at the bottom of his email next to the names of the cities in which he had stayed.

Warren knew many people, but he chose only a handful to be his close companions—people that, as he put it, he had been adopted by. Among them were artist Simon Leung, who has been making films about him for years; artist Elka Krajewska, who co-founded the Friends of Warren group to help him in his final months; and artist Katy Bentall, in whose studio in Warsaw he stayed many times. And only now, we, Warren’s close friends, are coming to know each other and getting a better sense of his life too. From the various fragments, a portrait is emerging of someone who led a radical, transcultural, and transnational existence in which art and life were no longer distinguishable from one another.

The last time I saw Warren was with Sina Najafi in Berlin in the late autumn of 2018, when—as was his custom every year—he was about to leave Europe for North America (this time, as he reported, via the WAW-MUC-LIS-JFK route). Like a migratory bird, he flew in the winter to New York and then to the warmth of California or Mexico. Unfortunately, he did not return this spring.

Warren Niesłuchowski died on 17 June 2019.