The Lonely City; adventures in the art of being alone – Olivia Laing

This isn’t a book I would have chosen and bought in a bookshop.  I would have passed it by as “not being my sort of book” so I’m really pleased my friend Mike bought it for me and widened my horizons.

The book is set in New York and I read in the week after I visited the city for the first time and whilst still travelling in the USA.  I think being able to visualise some of the places Laing is talking about helped me to understand what she was writing about.

The premise of the book is that Laing has moved to NY to be with her new love and arrives only to find the relationship has collapsed and she is alone in a new city, succumbing to a deep bout of loneliness amongst the crowds of people.  Her reaction to this, to get away from staring at the walls of her apartment, is to explore art that depicts loneliness or isolation and to uncover the lives of the artists who created it.

She starts with the fairly obvious to ease the reader in with something familiar; Hopper and the way he uses glass to compartmentalise and isolate people from one another.  I’m familiar with Hopper’s more famous paintings but her descriptions still made me head for Google Images to relook at Nighthawk; I had never noticed before that there is no door into the café.

After Hopper came Andy Warhol.  I had never considered him as someone who epitomises loneliness and isolation but the author puts forward a good case as to how he used the crowds at his Factory, his wigs and his gadgets to create a barrier around himself.  She still hasn’t convinced me that his art is worth a closer look but it was interesting to learn more about the man behind the image.

The other artists Laing writes about I had never come across before, although I had come across odd bits of some of their work.  I found these sections of the book most engaging, I think because I was coming to them with no preconceptions.  I also feel that at this point, when Laing is fully immersed in her research to find out more about the people behind the art, she becomes more engaging, more human and less a whiney, pretentiously arty person playing at loneliness.

The main people she writes about are Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger.  I really enjoyed finding out about these artists and their life stories.  I loved the depths Laing went to uncovering archives, unpacking dusty boxes and following up clues to delve into their troubles backgrounds.  And I loved having some new “names” to discover and explore.

This book made me think about how we see art; does understanding the context of a painting help us to appreciate what we see or does it hinder?  Do I really want keep looking at Hopper paintings knowing he deliberately curtailed his wife’s career as an artist?  Do Darger’s pictures become more or less disturbing knowing about his childhood and mental health?  Should I admire Wojnarowicz’ work for celebrating a more real New York or does it make me appreciate a safer, Disneyfied city?

This wasn’t one of the books that leaves you bereft and anting more when you finish it but I’m still thinking about what it said a week after finishing it – and I suspect I will be for some time – and I think that says how well it has done its job.

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