Brigitte Lacombe, Joan Didion, New
York, 1996, 1996. Black-and-white
photograph. 16 × 20 in. (40.6 × 50.8
cm). Courtesy of the artist and
Lacombe, Inc

Pat Steir, July Waterfall, 1991. Oil on
canvas. 102 1/4 × 116 1/8in. (259.7 ×
295 cm). Whitney Museum of American
Art, New York. Promised gift of Robert
Miller and Betsy Wittenborn Miller. ©
Pat Steir. Digital image © Whitney
Museum of American Art / Licensed by
Scala / Art Resource, NY

Liz Larner, inflexion, 2013. Ceramic,
epoxy, and pigment. 18 1/2 x 36 3/4 x
10 1/2 inches (47 x 93.3 x 26.7 cm).
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
Purchase © Liz Larner. Courtesy of
Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Maren Hassinger, River, 1972/2011.
Mixed-media installation with steel
chains and rope. 7 × 89 × 358 in. (17.8
× 226.1 × 909.3 cm). The Studio Museum in Harlem. Gift of the artist. Photo: Adam Reich

Todd Webb, Georgia O’Keeffe with
Sky above Clouds II, 1965. Gelatin
silver print. 8 × 9 15/16 in. (20.3 ×
25.2 cm). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe

Joan Didion, who passed away in 2021 at age 87, was THE chronicler of American culture, but was herself an icon of American culture. In her later years, she even became a fashion icon, shot by star photographer Jürgen Teller for Celine. She was also the subject of The Center Will Not Hold, a Netflix documentary, the contemporary equivalent of a Nobel prize. She is now the subject of a remarkable art exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum, in Miami. Called What She Means, it covers Didion’s life as it moved from one coast to the other and back. It is a portrait of the writer and journalist through over 200 artworks from artists and other objects connected to her: a map of the Sacramento Valley Railroad where she was from, issues of Vogue magazine where she first interned and then wrote for, family heirlooms, photographs, videos, footage from the films she wrote the screenplays of. Over 50 artists  are featured in the exhibition: Ed Ruscha, Vija Celims, Ana Mendieta, Pat Steir, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, among many others. 

The exhibition, curated by New Yorker writer Hilton Als, also editor of an short Didion anthology called Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is divided into four periods covering the different eras of Didion’s life: 

Holy Water: Sacramento-Berkeley, 1934-1956. In her essay “Holy Water”, Joan Didion talks about her fascination with water and dams in her native Sacramento. Water was also about fluidity and movement.   

Goodby To All That: New York, 1956-1963. After graduating from Berkeley, Didion moved to New York where she worked for Vogue and won a writing contest. It’s there that the writer found her voice. She missed California’s distinctive light and seven years later moved back to her home state, this time to Los Angeles with her husband, John Gregory Dunne. 

The White Album: California-Hawaii, 1964-1988. Didion lived in Los Angeles for 20 years at a time of great social and sexual upheaval. She wrote movies, most notably The Panic in Needle Park and remake of A Star is Born, with Barbra Streisand. It’s there that she wrote the books that would establish her as a major voice and chronicler of American culture: Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. 

Sentimental Journey: New York, Miami, Salvador, 1988-2021. In 1988, Joan Didion and her family moved back to New York. There, she wrote essays for the New York Review of Books, and two of her most important books, after the loss of her husband and her daughter - The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. “Sometimes, in conversations, she described the light in California and the significance of ominous signs, such as snakes in the pool.” 

Jean-Sébastien Stehli

Joan Didion: What She Means. Pérez Art Museum Miami. Until January 7, 2024. 

July 25, 2023 — Jean Sebastien Stehli