Olivia Laing on the Art of Being Alone

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).


Following a difficult breakup and a transatlantic move to New York City, Olivia Laing finds herself in the midst of a crisis – alone in New York and experiencing poignant isolation. Her remedy? Art. In a sharp non-fiction titled ‘The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’, Laing gently rips to shreds any of the New York glamour and glitz installed upon us by the likes of Nick Carraway or Carrie Bradshaw. Instead, she offers an exploration into the solitary lives of several of New York’s twentieth-century artists as a balm for wounds of loneliness – after all, what is relatability if not a great comfort?

Illustration by Nia Thomas

The book is structured in chapters, each dedicated to the analysis of an artist: Zoe Leonard, Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Valerie Solanas are among those dissected by Laing. Nothing is off the table when it comes to identifying their personal brands of solitudes. Laing delves into childhood traumas, abandonment, AIDS, voyeurism and other factors of isolation. Each passage is an opportunity to frame an artist as an exemplification of a particular aspect of loneliness: Wojnarowicz the solitary outcast, Warhol a misfit, Hopper the bitter painter. The Lonely City’s ability to combine examples of artists with psychological research conducted by leaders in the field is a powerful approach and solidifies many of Laing’s arguments, without drowning out the sensitivity of her writing. Paragraphs, sentences and chapters flow in a cont