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Know the West

A Los Angeles exhibit reverse-engineers Joan Didion’s writing

‘What She Means’ attempts to re-create the Western writer’s world.

Joan Didion described her creative process as an attempt to paint pictures with words. In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” the journalist, essayist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter said that she saw “pictures in my mind … images that shimmer around the edges.” Her goal was to decipher and document the object in the mist, as if pinning a moth to cardboard: “You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.”


The exhibit “What She Means,” which occupies several rooms at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, tries to re-create the world as the doyenne of California literature saw it — to reconstitute the pictures in her mind. The exhibit’s title is inspired by a Didion quote that was also the title of her last collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, published in 2021. Exhibit co-curator Hilton Als, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at The New Yorker, wrote the introduction to that book and has become one of the most authoritative and vocal champions of Didion’s work. As a Black, queer East Coast intellectual who authored a book called White Girls, Als’ notes on the California-born writer are also distinctively situated. He began working on this show in consultation with the author before her death in December 2021. The curator had to finish the tribute without its muse, an undoubtedly emotional task that had Als sweating as he walked journalists around the exhibit on opening night, trying to explain and express the woman who meant so much to him.

This is not the first exhibit that Als has dedicated to visually interpreting and re-creating the work of an author; he has also organized shows around James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But “What She Means” is certainly the most prominent, opening less than a year after Didion’s death at age 87, at a time when both appreciations of — and attacks on — her importance have made her a posthumous cover girl. 

As it happens (one of Didion’s pet phrases), I’ve been working on a book about Didion myself. I’ve spent the last year immersed in her articles, books, movies and papers, interviewing family, friends, colleagues and acolytes. And so I walked into the exhibit with my own ideas of what she means.


I took my 15 literary journalism students, undergraduates and graduates, and many of them had trouble grasping the connection between the writer and the work on display. The exhibit was substantial, a welter of media and mediums. Was this art something that she made? (Mostly no, except for the magazine articles and films she wrote.) Was this art made about her? (Mostly no, except for a few photographs and one drawing.) Was this art she collected? (No, though it included many artists whose work she did know, like and own.) Did she choose the art? (No, it was chosen by Als and his co-curator, Connie Butler.)

What this is is a sort of Didion diorama. The curators (Butler works at the Hammer) have wisely divided the exhibit into four themes, periods and places: “Holy Water: Sacramento-Berkeley, 1934-56”; “Goodbye to All That: New York, 1956-63”; “The White Album: California, 1964-88”; and “Sentimental Journeys: New York-Miami-Honolulu-San Salvador, 1988-2021.” Each room displays a few objects from Didion’s life: the family mantilla handed down to the fifth-generation Californian, childhood photographs, copies of Vogue from the years the young Didion worked there, posters for films she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote. Quotes from Didion and film clips of people and things she wrote about — John Wayne (a scene from Stagecoach), the sunset over the Pacific (an unfinished film by Andy Warhol), Eldridge Cleaver — place the viewer in the context that shaped the text. Alongside these objects are works of art by an impressive variety of talents — Diane Arbus, Glenn Ligon, Betye Saar — which are not directly tied to Didion’s work, but which show how other creators have worked with the same themes and materials. They are like collateral inspirations, the reason for their inclusion in the show sometimes transparent, sometimes whimsical.

The first room of “What She Means” depicts Sacramento and the surrounding area, where Joan Didion was born and raised. Maren Hassinger’s ‘River’ runs through the room, much the way the American and Sacramento rivers run through the valley, while Amanda Williams’ ‘It’s a Goldmine/Is the Gold Mine?’ alludes to the gold rush that changed the region forever.
Courtesy of the Hammer Museum

In “Holy Water,” the bright earthen colors of a Wayne Thiebaud painting capture the fields and the delta region of Sacramento, where Didion was born and raised and where the painter taught. Below it, a giant chain twists and winds across the floor, an abstract serpentine evocation of River by Maren Hassinger; Didion learned to swim in the waterways of the Central Valley and was deathly afraid of snakes. The painting captures her childhood roots in Western pastoralism and pastoral Westerns; the sculpture evokes the exploitation of labor and land that she came to understand as the true heritage of the frontier. 

They are like collateral inspirations, the reason for their inclusion in the show sometimes transparent, sometimes whimsical.

By following the chronology of Didion’s life, “What She Means” reveals the transformation of the California girl into the American woman — once you figure out the organizing premise and settle into the work. Maybe it’s because Als and I both worked at The Village Voice in the ’80s and ’90s, though we rarely interacted, or because we have both dug beneath Didion’s “greatest hits,” but it seemed to me that the exhibit homed in on what I consider to be Didion’s most overlooked works, including the book Where I Was From, her essay “Some Women,” and her groundbreaking investigation of the Central Park jogger trial, titled “New York: Sentimental Journeys.” “What She Means” provides a timely corrective to some of the backlash bashing of “Saint Joan,” as Daphne Merkin mockingly called her. “What She Means” was not a show for acolytes seeking talismans. That kind of show happened in November, at an estate auction whose outsized prices would have inspired some perfectly placed acerbic observations from Didion herself. Rather, “What She Means” offers a sympathetically complex reimagining of one of the greatest stylists and most perceptive critics of the past century. 

Me, I lingered over the color photos taken by Henry Clarke at Didion’s house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. Spices grow in rows of pots in the kitchen. Quintana Roo Dunne, Joan and John’s daughter, sits on the counter, as kids do. An old quilt hangs behind a piano. Soot blackens the white wall above the fireplace. It’s classic California Didion: a bucolic record of some of her most productive, enviable years and of the family that, decades later, Didion would lose almost all at once, in tragedies she documented in her final books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. 

“What She Means” may be too high-concept for some, too redolent of insider baseball (which, as it happens, is the title of one of Didion’s great takedowns of U.S. politics). But if you focus on the shimmer, your own picture of Joan Didion may materialize.   

Evelyn McDonnell is the author of several books, including the forthcoming The World According to Joan Didion. She is a journalism professor at Loyola Marymount University. “What She Means” was on display at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum from Oct. 11, 2022, to Jan. 22, 2023.

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