Sunday , September 20 2020
"The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone" is Olivia Laing's sometimes idiosyncratic critical analyses of artists and their work are wrapped in her own personal journey, a journey both physical and emotional.

Book Review: ‘The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’ by Olivia Laing Examines Loneliness and Art

In The Lonely City: Adventures In the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing‘s follow up to her examination of the relationship between alcoholism and six American writers in The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, she turns her attention to loneliness and its effects on visual artists. As in the earlier book, her sometimes idiosyncratic critical analyses of each artist and his work are wrapped in her own personal journey, a journey both physical and emotional.

Picture credit: Jonathan Ring
Picture credit: Jonathan Ring

Finding herself left unexpectedly alone and depressed in New York after an aborted love affair, she begins to ponder the seeming paradoxical feeling of isolation in the crowded city, a feeling she finds to be more common than one might expect. The causes of emotional isolation may vary, as may its effects. Individuals will deal with it differently. There will be those who are destroyed by it; there will be those who manage to use it productively and in some sense flourish. At least for a while. The bulk of The Lonely City deals with the latter.

Liang identifies a number of artists, visual artists especially, although others as well who suffer in various ways from this overwhelming malaise. She examines the work of acclaimed artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol at length to evaluate how it has been affected by their feelings of loneliness. She attributes Hopper’s habit of looking into scenes from outside through windows as a result of his feelings of separation. She looks at Warhol’s fascination with mechanical reproduction in much the same way.

She looks at some of the less iconic names like Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz with equal attention, making the case that the radical originality of their work was a result of their almost psychotic feelings of loneliness. While in passing she notes others, some notorious like Valerie Solanas, some transcendent like Billie Holiday, some quick burning flames like counter tenor Klaus Nomi. In all cases these are artists who suffered severely from feelings of isolation and overcame them through their art, at least for a while.

Throughout, Laing weaves the narrative of her own isolation and depression as she wanders the streets of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village and Times Square. She talks about her research. Her feelings as she travels to Pittsburgh to check out the Warhol Museum, to Chicago to see the Darger room, as she scavenges through the libraries of New York University for Wojnarowicz materials. As they wrapped their isolation in art, she wraps hers in them.

Art may not be a cure for feelings of separation, but for many it is a result. People, she concludes, make things when they feel alone. Hopper made Nighthawks. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit.” Olivia Laing wrote The Lonely City.

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