A new Joan Didion exhibition brings the literary icon back to LA

‘Joan Didion: What She Means' brings the literary icon back to LA | Soho House

Arranged by critic Hilton Als and on show at the Hammer Museum, it features the pictures, artworks and texts that defined her compelling life

Thursday 13 October 2022 By Leonie Cooper

Less than a year after her death, Joan Didion has returned to the place that remains so inextricably tied to her own story: Los Angeles. Despite moving to New York in the 1980s – and starting her career there in the 1950s – the Sacramento-born writer will forever be linked to LA thanks to her reportage on California counterculture. From essays covering The Doors and the Manson family murders to her Hollywood novel Play It As It Lays, it was the darkness and domesticity of the city, and the way the two overlap, that provided a cornerstone to much of her work.  

Joan Didion: What She Means is a vast, engagingly serpentine celebration of the essayist, novelist and screenwriter’s unparalleled talent. Arranged at LA’s Hammer Museum by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als, it has been in the works for three years – well before Didion’s death at the age of 87 in December 2021 – and brings together more than 200 artefacts and artworks that shine a light on her life. The names involved carry as much weight as Didion’s own. There are photographs, videos, paintings and installations by luminaries such as Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Milton Avery, as well as Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, Betye Saar, Richard Avedon, Kenneth Anger and William Eggleston. 

Much like Didion’s work, there is a chillingly voyeuristic strain that runs throughout. This is most obvious in haunting photos of a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate just before her murder, as well as a telegram sent from Tate to her former boyfriend – and fellow victim – Jay Sebring. Didion was famously told of the killings while in her sister-in-law’s Beverly Hills swimming pool, via a phone call from Natalie Wood. ‘Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed,’ wrote Didion of the perceived occultist and acid-induced massacre on Cielo Drive in 1969. ‘I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.’

‘Joan Didion: What She Means' brings the literary icon back to LA | Soho House

Didion’s pre-LA life is also thoughtfully represented, from the original sign at her father Frank’s insurance business to her own early fascination with water, reflected in Pat Steir’s spectacular painting ‘July Waterfall’. There’s even a large projection of Didion’s childhood cowboy crush, John Wayne, taken from the classic John Ford western Stagecoach. It was a crush that never faltered, though was never fulfilled. ‘Although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow,’ wrote Didion in ‘John Wayne: A Love Song’, which would feature in her seminal 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem

We are also shown yearbook photos of the self-possessed young Didion, as well as her columns from Vogue, where she worked from 1956 to 1964. Most amusing of these is a curt review of The Sound Of Music, which she branded ‘embarrassing’. ‘Just whistle a happy tune,’ she wrote of the folksy musical that sees the Third Reich acting as an inconvenient backdrop to Julie Andrews’ joyful trilling, ‘and leave the Anschluss behind’. Elegant paintings of Manhattan high society in the 1950s by John Kock contrast firmly with Didion’s hardscrabble roots, as evidenced by the inclusion of her great-great-great grandmother’s rustic potato masher, which was carried across the Great Plains in the 1840s.

Didion’s coverage of the Black Panthers is represented by a striking photo of founder Huey P Newton by a teenage Jeffrey Henson Scales. And there is emotive work from Noah Purifoy, whose smoke-stained ‘Watts Uprising Remains’ assemblage was taken from the ashes of the 1965 riots in South LA that saw Black residents passionately responding to long-standing racial injustice.

Outliving both her daughter and husband, we finish with a look at Didion’s final years. Any hint of sadness, though, is outweighed by her iconic 2014 campaign for Celine, which sees the then eighty-something sporting those trademark dark sunglasses, shot lovingly by Juergen Teller. 
Yet this is a show that tells stories beyond Didion’s own. Only days before it opens, the German painter Silke Otto-Knapp – whose imposing Georgia O’Keeffe-referencing cloud painting is on display – died at the age of 52. Elsewhere, pictures of Ana Mendieta’s earth-body work the Silueta Series echo a renewed interest in the late performance artist’s work, thanks to a new podcast, Death Of An Artist, which looks at Mendieta and the sculptor Carl Andre, who was accused of pushing her out of a 34th floor window in 1985. 

For the Joan Didion faithful, this is compulsory viewing – for everyone else, it remains an exceptional collection of art and humanity. 

'Joan Didion: What She Means' is on view at the Hammer Museum through January 22nd 2023

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