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The Perpetual Guest: On Warren Niesluchowski | The Nation

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The Perpetual Guest: On Warren Niesluchowski

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I don’t remember exactly when I met Warren, or how. It feels like I’ve always known him, which is as it should be, because the essence of his temperament is being known, and knowing others. Both pleasure and necessity have prompted him to develop a preternatural skill at networking.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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It makes sense that everyone in the art world knows Warren, but how is it that his circle of acquaintance seems so much wider than that? In his case it’s as if the six degrees of separation that, according to urban folklore, connect us with all humanity have been reduced to no more than two. I remember once, years ago, being with him at an opening in Philadelphia. He had so many goodbyes to say at the end of the evening that we missed the chartered bus back to New York City. There wasn’t another train until four in the morning, so off we went looking for the bus station. As we wandered the unfamiliar streets in search of it, we happened to pass a station for the local commuter trains, and at that moment a woman stepped out and began to ask us for directions. Just as I was going to explain that we were strangers there ourselves and couldn’t help her, she turned to my friend and exclaimed, “Warren! Is that you? What are you doing here?” Wherever he goes, it seems, random people—faces in the crowd, passers in the night—recognize Warren.

But not only random people. Later, when I was living in London, Warren would visit periodically. Upon his arrival I would ask him if he had any plans for dinner, and he would usually say something like, “Ah, I might be meeting Nicholas” (Warren is on a strictly first-name-only basis with everyone he knows). “I’ll have to call him first and find out what’s going on.” It was up to me to divine whether the Nicholas to whom he was referring was Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, or Nicholas Logsdail, proprietor of the Lisson Gallery, London’s most distinguished commercial gallery. Sometimes geography gives the clue. In London the Marina he speaks of will be the writer Marina Warner, but in New York he must mean Marina Abramovic. (That Philadelphia opening was hers.) At least when he mentions Anish or Vito I can tell he’s talking about Kapoor and Acconci.

Being on a first-name basis with Warren may owe something to the difficulty people have pronouncing his surname, Niesluchowski. But although everyone knows him, and knows him as Warren, no one knows what he does. Mostly, he seems to drift through Europe and North America, turning up, Zelig-like, wherever something interesting is happening. He always travels by the cheapest means possible; what the bus ride from Warsaw to London is like I can’t say, but it doesn’t sound comfortable. Warren knows it well. Likewise, he is always turned out with incredible elegance in thrift-shop finds. Even his socks are snazzy. He’s welcome worldwide. No great event is complete without his presence. But he has no concrete role. He is not an artist, a critic or a curator, let alone a collector or dealer. Occasionally he accepts a commission as a translator, and these gigs seem to help him get by. He often mentions a “project” on which he is engaged with this or that artist, but it is usually hard to ascertain its nature, or what his role in it might be. He is, to all appearances, a lily of the valley; he neither sows nor reaps.

Warren leads what is in many ways an enviable life, but there is a not inconsiderable drawback. He is, essentially, homeless. And to some extent, his condition seems fated: Warren was born adrift. He came into the world in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, his Polish parents having met in a forced-labor camp in that country, and grew up near Boston (where a strict Catholic education laid the groundwork for his considerable erudition); he lived abroad after becoming an Army deserter in 1968 and returned to the United States in 1975, where he belatedly found himself a Harvard undergraduate. He stayed there as long as he could without taking a degree. But over the past decade or so, having discovered in himself some inner need for drift that had gone ungratified, he has made his home wherever someone will put him up. Warren is a perpetual guest. His base, to the extent that he has one, is in Warsaw, where he has a sister, but mostly he lives where anyone from his extended network happens to have a spare bedroom or a temporarily empty apartment where he can stay for a while. I once told him that he could solve his financial problems by writing a bestselling book based on his experience; it could be called How to Make Yourself Welcome. He hasn’t written it yet, unfortunately. And now that he’s in his mid-60s, and not as physically sturdy as he once was, I think he’s been brooding a lot on the future his nomadic lifestyle has in store for him, when he becomes less able to move around as easily as he does now.

Living without a permanent home means living with no more possessions than can be packed in a suitcase. Yet, like most of us, Warren accumulates things—and some of them, like books, are too heavy to lug around. He has therefore come up with an original method for accumulating things without being weighed down by them—he leaves things behind at every place he stays, giving his things a stability he denies himself. (Warren: if you’re reading this, that brown suitcase you left in my apartment has not come to New York City with me, but it’s stored in the basement in London. If we’re ever both there again at the same time, it can be retrieved.) “A cynic should really have no possessions whatever: for a man’s possessions, in a certain sense, actually possess him,” wrote Friedrich Schlegel in one of his Athenaeum Fragments, referring to the ancient philosophers who, a bit like Warren, made themselves homeless. To Schlegel’s aperçu his friend Friedrich Schleiermacher added a caveat: “The solution to this problem is to own possessions as if one did own them. But it’s even more artistic and cynical not to own possessions as if one owned them.” Warren has at times practiced both of these solutions to the problem of ownership.

It wasn’t always thus. When I first knew Warren he had a very respectable job. He was working at PS1, the pioneering exhibition space in Queens that was later acquired by MoMA. I don’t remember how long that lasted, but after he left PS1 he was a freelance editor for Routledge, and he earned enough money to hold down a small apartment on the Lower East Side. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t doing the editing job and didn’t have the apartment anymore. He had gone into circulation.

* * *

One of the mysterious projects that Warren had been mentioning for a long time involved the Hong Kong–born, Los Angeles–based artist Simon Leung. As usual, I never quite understood what it was all about, but one day Warren mentioned in passing that Simon might be getting in touch with me about contributing to the project. Sure, whatever. While admiring the paintings in the Prado one day I got a call—it was Simon. He was making a video about Warren. Would I be willing to lend my voice to it? Of course, if only out of curiosity. Simon (whom I had never met, and whose work I was nearly as little acquainted with) would be passing through London soon, and we made an appointment.

I imagined he would be interviewing me—asking me some questions about Warren, my impressions of him, our relationship. Not at all, as it turned out. Instead, he had a text he wanted me to read, an excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace,” a work I’d heard of but never read. Leung explained to me that he had found a couple of passages in it that conveyed his understanding of our mutual friend, and that he was asking some of the people who had extended hospitality to Warren over the years to read one or another of them for the soundtrack of his video.

The passage he handed me was astonishing—not just brilliantly reasoned, as I’d expected, but laced with a sardonic wisdom. Its subject: hospitality as a political notion. The basis of world citizenship is “the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another.” It is the right not to be a long-term guest but a peaceful visitor, a right derived not only from the fact that originally no individual had any more claim to a spot on the earth’s surface than any other, but also from the finitude of that earth, which means that we “cannot infinitely disperse” and therefore “must finally tolerate the presence of each other.” With regard to Warren and his peculiar modus vivendi, Simon’s choice of text seemed apt. In a sense, Warren is always testing his hosts’ capacity for hospitality. 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. He becomes like a temporary (or maybe not so temporary) member of the family—and relations are always a bit more fraught within the family than among mere acquaintances. The limits need to be negotiated and renegotiated; all of Warren’s hosts are tacitly aware of this, but no one is so sensitive to the situation as Warren. He sometimes alludes to the diplomacy that his mode of living requires, and points out that his friends are diplomatic toward him too, such as when refraining from asking potentially embarrassing questions. “They don’t say, ‘Well, why are you calling me…. Where would you be if I wasn’t at home to take this call?’” Hospitality doesn’t work like that. “It’s either possible or it’s not, but it’s given on a gift basis.”

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