An ambitious study of New York artists, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City examines a few of the many forms urban loneliness takes.
Across eight wide-ranging chapters Laing considers loneliness as it appears in the works of realist painter Edward Hopper, pop artist Andy Warhol, transgressive writer David Wojnarowicz, and outsider artist Henry Darger. Mixing together biography, psychology, criticism, and cultural history, the author analyzes how these men’s abusive childhoods and marginalized milieus informed their artworks’ complex representations of isolation, connection, desire, and violence.
The starting point for the study is clear. In the introduction Laing outlines how, after moving from London to New York to be closer to a newfound partner, she found herself suddenly dumped, single, and alone in an unfamiliar place, amidst masses of people. Agonized, the acclaimed writer sought solace in the paintings, collages, photographs, and memoirs of New York and Chicago artists whose work is tinged with melancholy.
At a brisk pace Laing breezes through considering the productive careers of Hopper, Warhol, Wojnarowicz, and Darger, as well as a handful of related women artists. The author acquaints readers with the eclecticism of these famous figures’ art, and draws attention to how the loneliness they represented is always social in origin, produced by the emotional toll of urban decay, gentrification, oppression, and more. As a kind of cultural survey the book’s engaging, if not groundbreaking.
The individual chapters are successful as introductions, but the book feels aimless. Laing jumps from the postwar paintings of the notoriously bigoted Hopper to the apolitical works of Warhol and Darger to the anti-racist prose and photographs of Wojnarowicz. The connections between the four men are near nonexistent, and while the book’s second half extensively discusses Wojnarowicz’s transgressive art scene and the AIDS epidemic, those parts aren’t well integrated with the rest.
The lack of purpose is worsened by the fact that interspersed throughout the book are bits of memoir—about Laing’s recent break-up, her experience of New York, her childhood identification with gay males. So much is hinted at, so little expanded upon. Worse yet the link between the life writing and the criticism is tenuous: Laing never clarifies what about her situation attracted her to the four men at the core of her study.
Nor does the writer address why she chose to center male experience and art. The decision to relegate women artists like Nan Goldin and Valerie Solanas to the sidelines of history, considering their careers only in relation to those of their male counterparts, feels regressive as well as bizarre, given that Laing’s a woman writer who’s nominally supportive of feminism. Sadly the work’s problems with diversity don’t end there.
The book actively erases the contributions of people of color to New York’s transgressive subcultures of the seventies and eighties, the second half’s main subject. Basquiat, house music, and drag balls are but a few of the subjects Laing should have addressed had she wanted to write a compelling account of the time; the author’s erasure of Black and brown lives re-enacts the gentrification she rightly identifies as dehumanizing.
The goal of The Lonely City isn’t obvious. It’s too reticent to work well as memoir, too scattered to be cohesive cultural history, too superficial to come across as incisive criticism. The chapters on Darger and Warhol stage convincing recovery readings of much-critiqued artists, but otherwise the book seems best skipped or skimmed.