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26 February 2016

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City changes how we view artistic sacrifice

Laing’s book uses her own loneliness to consider a group of 20th-century figures who expressed their alienation through art.

By Philip Hoare

When David Bowie died I was a long way from home. I live alone, anyhow; but the added distance from England made his death more difficult to bear. In the early hours, I watched a video of him singing “John, I’m Only Dancing”, and saw, in the blackness behind him, my own face in the screen. Yet when I connected to Twitter that morning, I suddenly had the impression – the illusion – that in my grief for someone I had never met, I was not alone.

Bowie once declared that all his work was about loneliness and isolation. He sang about and predicted the alienating influences of late-20th- and early-21st-century culture in a manner that would make him eminently suitable for inclusion in Olivia Laing’s new book, The Lonely City – an evocation of what she concedes is an old-fashioned, analogue art: “I used to read like that, back in the age of paper, the finished century, to bury myself in a book, and now I gazed at the screen, my cathected silver lover.”

In her earlier books – To the River, which followed Virginia Woolf down the Ouse, and The Trip to Echo Spring, which explored the relationship between writing and drinking – Laing has teased non-fiction into a new kind of literature. Her latest work is a wonderful and worrying inquisition of the contemporary state of isolation. The Lonely City is not so much a pathology of loneliness as it is an anatomy of desire. It adds up the costs and consequences of a connected, 24/7 world, and asks if art can bridge our sense of aloneness at the same time as it expresses it. Intensely felt and personal, Laing’s writing emerges out of a world in which the term “social media” can seem oxymoronic. Yet, partly because of its author’s personal investment, the book resolves itself in a sense of optimism dredged from the deep, dark stories it tells.

Laing finds herself dumped and lovelorn in Manhattan. She moves from one rented room to another – cramped, always lit by neon signs – feeling hemmed in by the sights and sounds of humanity going about her. Loneliness is a hunger and she seeks to satisfy it through the solace of art. She looks back to the lives and work of 20th-century artists, known and unknown, mostly based in New York: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Klaus Nomi, David Wojnarowicz. In skilfully drawn passages, interwoven with her own experiences, she shows how their art expressed their alienation, for all the communal life of a city.

Edward Hopper looked like an ordinary gentleman. When not in New York, he lived in Cape Cod, in an isolated house set amid the sand dunes, on an already isolated peninsula. Yet his city life was equally isolated. He wore three-piece suits, and maintained an apparently conventional marriage, although his wife, Jo, an accomplished artist in her own right, found her ambitions entirely crushed by her husband’s near-monomania. I haven’t read any other descriptions of Hopper’s art that are as enlightening as Laing’s, partly because she rescues him from the familiarity of contempt. She interrogates well-known images of his such as Nighthawks, animating it for the reader. The implicit bleakness of that midnight diner, with its sickly green light, is only underlined when Laing tells us that all the figures in it are modelled on Hopper himself (save the waitress, for whom his wife posed).

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“The window was the weirdest thing,” the author says, as she communes with the painting at the Whitney Museum. It was “the only time he ever painted glass . . . It was impossible to gaze through into the diner’s luminous interior” – and the slumped or stilled figures inside – “without experiencing a swift apprehension of loneliness, of how it might feel to be shut out, standing alone in the cooling air”. The silence of these scenes, she writes, is made toxic when we learn how Jo Hopper paid for it: in the silence she had to keep, to ensure his isolation. Interviewed in 1967, Hopper merely said, “I declare myself in my paintings.”

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The city is lonely because it is so full of people. For Laing, Andy Warhol epitomises the idea that the very act of looking is an expression of that alienation. From his immigrant background, born in Pittsburgh, the misfit boy moves to Manhattan and uses art as a social disguise. He hides behind his tools: from the tape recorder that he calls his “wife” to the Polaroid camera whose pictures don’t even have to go to the chemist to be developed. In his paintings, involving photography and silkscreen, Warhol developed perhaps the most distanced practice of any artist of the 20th century, and in so doing augured the art of the 21st. He wanted to be a machine, and he became one at the expense of his self. Narcissism – even in a person as unsure of his body as Warhol – binds itself with loneliness. “I like being in a vacuum; it leaves me alone to work,” he said.

All that changed when another loner, Valerie Solanas, took a gun to Warhol’s Factory and shot him. As Camille Paglia wrote, the shooting left Warhol “unable to advance beyond his set formulas”; it arrested his ­already arrested development. Although he survived the assassination attempt by Solanas, he retreated further into his own world as a result. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so ill or so alone as when I met him in 1986, despite or even because of his status as the cynosure of a glamorous art opening. He had become so pale that he seemed to recede into the background.

Laing’s own story slips into the book in a subtly affecting manner. We learn, by degrees, of her family background, growing up with her lesbian mother and coming to believe that she was a gay boy in a girl’s body: “God I was sick of carrying around a woman’s body, or rather everything that attaches to it.” She instinctively drifts towards the marginalised. The first thing she does on waking in her Manhattan room is to pull her MacBook on to her bed, seeking reassurance and distraction: the minor glories of favouriting on Twitter, the voyeurism of scrolling through Craigslist and its remotely connected relationships. Then she wanders aimlessly across town. Or she heads for the library that holds the archives of her most intriguing subject, David Wojnarowicz, a talented artist whose gilded-gutter photographs, films and writings about life on the Lower East Side reduce her to tears.

A product, like Warhol, of immigrant stock, Wojnarowicz hymned the decaying piers of the Hudson River, a lost Eden of the 1970s and 1980s where men could have sex with other men in a strangely safe environment. It was a nocturnal utopia conducted in vast, rotting warehouses on the edge of the city, expressing an alternative sense of community. Sex can be a lonely act, even if engaged in with someone else. Wojnarow­icz films these scenes, which, in Laing’s descriptions, become romantic paeans to fleeting passion, lost even as the camera rolls.

With the arrival of “the gay plague”, Laing’s story darkens. In the 1980 and 1990s, men such as Wojnarowicz, the photographer Peter Hujar and the performance artist Klaus Nomi find that the social stigma of the virus turns their Eden into a living hell. Hujar, sitting in his usual restaurant, is asked to pay his bill in a paper bag; his change is returned in the same bag. Stirred to resistance by such ignorance, Wojnarowicz joins ACT UP, the activist movement, and becomes his own potent gesture when his funeral cortège segues into a protest march. Most affecting of all is the scene in which his ashes, along with those of other Aids victims, are scattered over the green lawns of George Bush’s White House in a grey cloud of defiance.

Laing feels this personally, even though it is history to her, or maybe because it is history. She wonders if Aids and its enforced isolation may have set the tone for the age to come. She cites Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which makes a connection between the disease and

. . . the then-nascent world of computers, the way their metaphors rapidly became shared and entangled. The use of the word virus, for example, migrating from an organism that attacks the body to programs that attack machines. Aids colonised the imagination at the end of the last millennium, filling the atmosphere with dread . . .

Physicality itself is associated with contamination. Better to live alone, in another existence: “A virtual world: why not, yes please, calling time on the tyranny of the physical, on the long rule of old age, sickness, loss and death.”

At times, Laing’s poetic prose evokes Virginia Woolf’s sense of “inner loneliness” as she walked around interwar London; or the mid-19th-century wanderings of Walt Whitman from the Brooklyn ferry to Broadway. She is ever attuned to the city’s dispossessed, and not just because she recognises herself in their shapes. I once saw Quentin Crisp walking through the snow down Canal Street in Manhattan, in 1991. While ACT UP protests were under way a few blocks away, Crisp strode through the night, unacknowledged, on his way back to his tiny apartment. Like many of the figures in The Lonely City, he seemed isolated by his art; by his determination to be himself even at the expense of happiness. When she visits the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Laing interviews Donald Warhola, Andy’s nephew, who says his uncle sacrificed a great deal to become an artist, “including the possibility of having a family of his own”.

Yet ultimately this book is a positive statement of the redemptive power of art. For Laing, the work produced by Warhol, Nomi and Wojnarowicz “medicated my own feelings of loneliness, giving me a sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration that one is human and as such subject to need”. Art can show us that we are defined not by a lover or our family, but by a greater sense of belonging and being: “Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”

Like all the lonely of the city, the Aids victims of whom Laing writes so movingly cannot be defeated by “the larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted”. Loneliness is “personal, and it is also political”. Endlessly, compulsively fascinating, Laing’s book has a character of its own. Like the city, it has a dark sheen, sidling out of the shadows, by turns alluring and curious, angry and exciting. The Lonely City changes the way we think about art, the people who make it, and the price they pay. 

Olivia Laing appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 10 April. For details visit:

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing is published by Canongate (315pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash