“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”
Joan Didion wrote those words in 1965, in an essay titled “Notes From a Native Daughter.” Over 50 years later, an excerpt from that essay will be displayed on a wall of Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum. The quote is highlighted as part of “Joan Didion: What She Means,” an expansive exhibition opening this month that celebrates the American writer’s life and work.
The retrospective arrives less than a year after Didion passed away last December, at age 87. In her long career, which spanned more than six decades, Didion wrote a rich collection of books and essays, and became known for her vivid, insightful depictions of American politics, society, culture and counterculture. In her later work, including 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking and 2011’s Blue Nights, Didion meditated on illness, aging and grief.
“What She Means” was curated by a fellow writer: Hilton Als, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and staff writer at the New Yorker whom Didion counted as a friend. Als, who wrote the foreword to Didion’s last essay collection, 2021’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean, has previously curated shows on writers James Baldwin and Toni Morrison for Manhattan’s David Zwirner Gallery. He pitched the Didion show in 2019, and received her blessing.
Though Didion spent much of her life in New York, Als found it important to anchor an exhibition about Didion’s legacy in California. Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934 and went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. She spent her life moving between California and New York; in 1988, after over 20 years in California, she moved back to Manhattan and stayed there for the rest of her life.
Still, Als considers her to be a “uniquely California person,” he tells the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney. “To pitch it in California was really the point,” Als, who himself splits his time between New York and Berkeley, where he teaches writing at the University of California, says. “I just thought it was an amazing place for her.”
That sentiment is shared by those familiar with Didion, including Tracy Daugherty, a Didion biographer and professor at Oregon State University. “Didion clearly had a complex relationship with California, but she never lost the belief that it, or its myths, had shaped her absolutely, and she was its daughter-in-exile,” he tells the New York Times.
Though Didion is originally from northern California, many consider her to be an “emblematic Los Angeles writer and Los Angeles figure,” as former book critic for the Los Angeles Times David L. Ulin tells the New York Times, because she spent many years living in and writing about the star-studded city. To Ulin, Los Angeles is the ideal location for a Didion show.
“What She Means” is laid out in four chronological sections: “Holy Water: Sacramento, Berkeley (1934–1956),” “Goodbye to All That: New York (1956–1963),” “The White Album: California, Hawai‘i (1964–1988),” and “Sentimental Journeys: New York, Miami, San Salvador (1988–2021).” The show spans 10,000 square feet of gallery space and features 215 items.
“It didn’t start out that big,” Connie Butler, the Hammer’s chief curator, tells the New York Times. “Hilton’s a voracious curator. He would still be adding things if he could.”
Included in those hundreds of items are photos of Didion, such as a 1996 image taken by Brigitte Lacombe. In it, Didion’s face is hidden, burrowed into her black turtleneck. The only visible parts of her are her hands, her bangs and her bob.
The exhibition also features 50 artists, including painters Vija Celmins, Ed Ruscha and fellow Sacramentan Wayne Thiebaud, as well as photos by Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. Many of the selected artworks evoke California both as a place and a state of mind, as Didion’s writing often did. Also included in the exhibition are film posters for A Star Is Born, the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand, and The Panic in Needle Park, which Didion wrote the screenplays for with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
Such a wide breadth of items is fitting for the first major exhibition on Didion following her passing: She explored any subject that called to her, from John Wayne to the Vietnam War. “She was open to the world,” Als tells the New York Times, “and wrote about experiences other than her own, all in an effort to understand what made us, and thus herself, and why.”
“Joan Didion: What She Means” is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through January 22, 2023.