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How Friendship Helps Us Transcend Ourselves

By Megan O'Grady for The New York Times T Magazine

With good friends, as with great art, our sense of the world is challenged and transformed.

For the essays in the issue, New York Times T Magazine commissioned and chose works about friendship; the images are not meant as literal reflections of the text. “The Ascendants XI (Homage to Ecclesiastes Three, One Through Eight)” (2021), made exclusively for T by the Chicago-based artist Wangari Mathenge, who said: “As part of the diaspora, I’m interested in what can ease the sense of displacement. The figures here might long to step out into a different kind of world, but for now they sit in comfortable silence in a shared space they’ve created for themselves. Who are the people you feel safe with? Maybe you take them for granted, but they are actually really important.”

Stories of friendships between artists are often told as love stories: the chance meeting, the electric first encounter, the mysterious mutual recognition that would change everything. That summer day in 1967 when Robert Mapplethorpe ran into Patti Smith in a New York City bookstore, both 20-year-olds craving beauty and immortality — “I thought to myself that he contained an entire universe I just had to know,” Smith wrote in her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.” The afternoon in 1940 when a teenage James Baldwin knocked on the door of Beauford Delaney’s Greenwich Village studio (“the first walking, living proof, for me, that a Black man could be an artist,” Baldwin wrote in his 1985 essay “The Price of a Ticket” of meeting the painter). But lightning doesn’t always strike on initial acquaintance. In a 1917 diary entry, a 35-year-old Virginia Woolf didn’t mince words in her impression of the New Zealand-born Modernist writer Katherine Mansfield at a dinner party: “She stinks like a … civet cat that had taken to streetwalking.” Despite Mansfield’s shocking “commonness,” Woolf went on, “when this diminishes, she is so intelligent and inscrutable that she repays friendship.”