Review: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
“Falling apart, falling forever, never resuming vitality, becoming locked in perpetuity into the cell of solitary confinement, in which a sense of reality, of boundedness, is rapidly eroded: these are the consequences of separation, its bitter fruit.” — Olivia Laing
Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City weaves her own experience in New York City with artists like David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, and Andy Warhol. It’s an ambitious book that captures a particular time in the 1980s. Laing describes Wojnarowicz’s New York City with such detail, I almost forget she wasn’t a witness to his experience. Loneliness spans gender, race, and socio-economic boundaries; it’s something that occurs for a number of reasons. Laing writes Wojnarowicz’s childhood abuse contributed to his intense search for companionship:
So much of Wojnarowicz’s life was spent trying to escape solitary confinement of one kind or another, to figure a way out of the prison of the self. There were two things he did, two escape routes that he took, both physical, both risky. Art and sex: the act of making images and the act of making love. page 111
The story of Wojnarowicz isn’t as well known as Andy Warhol, but it is a fascinating story. I knew Wojnarowicz’s work but not the details of his life, Laing provides a powerful history of abuse, parental alienation, and neglect that shaped the artist’s life. She also gives us a glimpse into her own life with a closeted mother, who was outed in the 1980s and the disastrous results. Linking her experience to Wojnarowicz personalized his story, it was apparent this artist mattered to Laing. I saw a connection between them and she seemed invested in recounting his story.
What I knew about Wojnarowicz’s life was tragic, he and a number of artists died from AIDS. Laing is meticulous in pointing out how AIDS further isolated Wojnarowicz and Hujar; she describes an incident that Hujar has at local restaurant. Readers can feel the isolation that Hujar’s experienced. It’s upsetting and appalling, but somewhat expected. Laing uses Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphor as well as Illness and Its Metaphor to further illustrate the isolation of AIDS victims.
The author offers a remarkable account of David Wojnarowicz’s rejection of the label victim and the lens through which he wanted to be seen. Laing analysis of Wojnarowicz’s work leaves enough room for us to make our own minds up about the artist. I’ve long admired his work; first as a curious teenager who discovered Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Buffalo) and later as a university student. I kept coming back to him because I saw the AIDS crisis through his eyes. Often these artists are forgotten for decades and there’s a renewed interest in their work, but David Wojnarowicz created something lasting. The AIDS crisis in the 1980’s was devastating and we can see it in the art of Wojnarowicz, Hujar, and countless others. He left behind a history that Laing has shared with her readers.
The Lonely City is a remarkable book that I would read over and over again. Olivia Laing brilliantly recounts the lives of these tortured artists. You can order it here.