A little over a year after her death, Joan Didion, the esteemed essayist whose writings both defined and defied the New Journalism style, has been the subject of several kinds of memorials, including the acquisition of her papers by the New York Public Library and a New York auction of her personal effects that generated nearly $2 million.
And a posthumous ritual of a different form is currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Curated by another iconic writer, Hilton Als’s “Joan Didion: What She Means” looks to build a portrait of Didion and the disparate threads that move through her writings and life phases, recomposing her through meandering parts, while at the same time unraveling them.
This genre of portrait exhibitions is a familiar one for Als, who has organized similar shows dedicated to writers Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and artists Alice Neel and Frank. “I think that the shows are in some way, the visual equivalent of essay writing,” Als told ARTnews in an interview.
With Didion’s permission, Als began working on this new show in 2019, roughly two years before her passing. In addition to including objects related to Didion and artists who have honored her in the work, Als wanted his show to draw from exhibitions that have stuck with him over the years, like “The Times Square Show,” a 1980 raucous convening of more than 100 New York artists organized by Colab (aka Collaborative Projects Inc.). “They weren’t prescribed to what an exhibition in the museum was supposed to be,” Als recalled of the 1980 show. “I’m always looking to see the effects of that kind of feeling in exhibitions.”
Parsing Didion’s biography through visuals is a massive task, Als said, and he has aimed to compose the Hammer show with an experimental spirit in mind. “I think that one of the things that is very important to me as a writer and as a visual person is to figure out the ways in which text and image can work together,” he said.
Across more than 200 objects, spanning paintings, sculpture, photography, video, and ephemera, the exhibition, which is on view until February 19 before it travels to the Pérez Art Museum Miami in July, includes work by artists like Ed Ruscha, Irving Penn, and Andy Warhol, whom Didion collected, alongside the work of several major contemporary artists like Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, Jack Pierson, Suzanne Jackson, Glenn Ligon, and Martin Puryear, among others. Alongside the Hammer’s chief curator Connie Butler, Als organized the exhibition according to Didion’s biography, beginning with a section focused on Didion’s upbringing in Sacramento and move to Berkeley and ending with an examination of the latter part of her life, in which she grappled with grief, over the death of her husband and daughter.
The exhibition’s first section takes as a theme water and fluidity, abounding with references to the American West. In Pat Steir’s large-scale, black-and-white abstraction July Waterfall (1991), water is portrayed in abundant form, cascading downwards, while in Maren Hassinger’s 1972 sculpture River, water acts as a proxy for the nostalgic imagery that Didion used to describe her Sacramento roots. A black metallic chain installed on the floor in a snake-like form, River recalls the “light and energy” of Sacramento’s riversides, Als said. Nearby is an except from the 1939 John Wayne Western Stagecoach, a touchstone in Didion’s writing, in particular the myth-making of cinema that fascinated her.
Next comes Didion’s time in New York, which proved to be consequential to her writing career. The focal point of this section is Hughie Lee-Smith’s Pumping Station (1960), in which a woman stands on the roof of a brick structure, with her back to the viewer. Als connected it to Didion’s early-career stint as a copy editor for Vogue, which she described in her writing as dull and arduous work. “I think that painting says a lot about young womanhood, about being co-opted,” Als said. “It’s a real transition between her being one of the observers to becoming observed herself.”
Works like these are meant to evoke how Didion described her surroundings, as she did in a 1979 New York Times review of Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” (also on view in a nearby vitrine), in which she describes the region’s “vast emptiness” as a place where “every road runs into the desert.”
Further along is Warhol’s unfinished Reel 77 of **** (Four Stars), a 1967 video shot on 16-mm film that was commissioned by the Catholic Church, captures the sun, saturated in purple light, as it slowly sets over Malibu, where Didion once live. “It could be her vantage point or yours,” he said; that the work is unfinished project “adds a certain kind of poetry and pathos to it.”
Didion penned “The White Album,” which chronicles the unnerving feelings felt from violent events of the 1960s, while living in Malibu. A Noah Purifoy sculpture that includes rubble from the 1965 Watts Riots, Als said, relates to the era’s political frictions and Didion’s role as a reporter covering them: “recording seismic changes in culture … becoming a character who is as much in flux as the times are.”
Among the final works in the show is Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (from the Sileuta Series), from 1976, showing ocean waves washing away an imprint of the artist’ body in the sand. A nod to the intense grief Didion experienced and wrote about after the deaths of her husband and daughter two years apart, in 2003 and 2005. Als sees Mendieta’s presence in the work as “a disappeared figure” in which “life and death interact in a single frame.”
Taken together, Als said the show’s vast visual and cultural imagery is meant to elucidate Didion’s “rivers of thought” on the changes in culture she tracked for some six decades. He noted, “If you are going to tell the truth about something, you find the visual corollary for that truth.”