There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you a taste of loneliness, but as The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (written long before the Coronavirus) shows us, incredible art can come out of a solitary existence. Laing takes us on an absorbing journey of New York City through the eyes of artists who lived lonely lives – sometimes by choice, most often not. She investigates the lives of artists like Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz even Andy Warhol, whose art ‘is surprisingly eloquent on isolation’ despite his famously social lifestyle. Highly recommended.
Laing started writing the book while stranded alone in New York City after a relationship broke down. With a desire to find ‘physical evidence that other people had inhabited my state’, Laing started to research artists ‘troubled by solitude’.
Loneliness, I began to realise, was a populated place: a city in itself.
Laing describes with conviction what it feels like being lonely and how that feeling is translated into art in Edward Hopper’s iconic paintings of solitary people in a diner in Nighthawks or a New York City bedroom in Night Windows; in Henry Darger’s – a hospital janitor, outsider artist and loner – disturbing paintings found after his death which no one had ever seen; in David Wojnarowicz’s photographs, paintings and installations in which his traumatic life shines through; in Andy Warhol’s art and even more in his shyness and struggle to communicate.
Other artists feature as well: Nan Goldin, Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi as well as the extraordinary and incredibly prescient 1999 social experiment, Quiet, predicting the future of the internet, which makes this book worth the read in itself.
The Lonely City touches upon that other deadly virus, the AIDS virus, and the isolating effects that had on its victims and the gay community. It’s sobering to be reminded now that in 1992, 194,476 people died of AIDS-related infections in America.
You don’t need to be an art expert to enjoy The Lonely City. Laing’s reflections around loneliness are universal and her empathy and humanity shines through in this wonderfully written book. Anyone who enjoyed Patti Smith’s brilliant Just Kids, will love it.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is published by Canongate Books, 336 pages.