Joan Didion has long been a favorite writer and American icon, and this image has been on my bucket list for a long while to finally paint. This is from her 2011 Blue Nights period, when she was in her late 70’s, from a photo from Publishers Weekly in the review and article about her and this moving time about her beloved daughter Quintana, who had tragically died soon after her fantastic husband, John Gregory Dunne, whose passing, and her processing she wrote about earlier in her acclaimed work The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005.
Blue Nights is a moving tribute to her daughter and ruminations about motherhood and aging, and their life together with her husband. Magical Thinking had such success that it had been turned into a Broadway play, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Although part of the catalyst for her famed writer husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death from his bad heart’s failure was their daughter’s illness (the quote often repeated in that book is “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it changes.”), she focused on her husband and her grief and process of recovery more than her daughter, who died soon after Magical Thinking was published. David Hare, the Broadway director, encouraged her to write about Quintana to update the play but also to help process for her own well-being.
Didion famously wrote about herself and past often, alongside historical essays about her California (she was raised in Sacramento and spent much of her life in Los Angeles and Malibu with her family). Even her great novels have Strong Female Protagonist’s like herself, that at times feel like perhaps amalgams of her. I’ve painted Louise Bourgeois in her living room from my own photo when I used to take NYU students to her salon, and she had elements of news clippings, sketches, and photos that all seemed to inspire her work. Here, Joan is surrounded by the things she lived with and loved, photos and books, and a calico embroidery by her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Scott, born in 1766, stitched in her great crossing to CA in 1846. This painting is also an appropriation of an appropriation, as behind her is a 1977 painting gifted to her by an artist fan Leslie Johnson (1944-2002), who based the image from the photo on the back of the book jacket of her novel A Book of Common Prayer from the same year.
While painting this work, I listened to the audiobooks of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Play it As it Lays, After Henry, A Book of Common Prayer, Where I Was From, and of course ending with The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Although eloquently essentialized (she taught herself how to type by writing out Hemingway sentences!), her writing can be very dense and elliptical, skipping over time periods and characters, with sometimes sentences lasting a whole paragraph or page. In this manner she reminds me of Proust, and if you aren’t focused or concentrating on what, in my case, I was listening to, it’s easy to get lost in the process. I would make myself re-listen in these instances until I understood completely what was going on, which also helped me focus on all the details of the work, as she lovingly did in her own writing to get everything perfect, right, and poignant with synesthetic reverence.
One of her most famous essays is “Goodbye to All That”, about leaving NYC as a young woman, and given her affinity towards California it was a surprise to many when she and her husband moved back. They were encouraged to make their new apartment as California as possible, and all the furniture and belongings seem to resonate this. Serendipitously there was a recent auction of her stuff, while I was painting this, and I think she would have liked that I was able to find and study most of these items depicted, and she wrote about them as well. The great Hilton Als also recently curated the amazing Hammer Museum show Joan Didion: What She Means, in tribute to her legend and her writing, and all that it reflects upon and encompasses, and of course I visited and soaked in and ruminated while painting. I also watched everything I could, lectures, interviews on YouTube and online, including (several times!) documentaries directed by her living nephew Griffin Dunne.
Joan Didion was a glamorous, but also extremely complicated and textured woman, writer, and thinker. In the Bethlehem essay, about the hippie era in SF, she was influenced by Yeats WWI idea “the Center falls apart” in writing “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” It was evident to me how much this is true, living in California and looking at its myths that also lured me here, but also this amazing woman, who seemed to be about holding it together, with humble but strong power, in her life and living through her writing. The personal is political and this is true in her work, which helped to change literature and essays in her time and now, where her influence seems everywhere. It was moving and edifying to paint this portrait of her, with an unflinching amount of detail that I hope she would appreciate as I tried to make it as true as possible to her character and spirit.
I was listening to Leaves of Grass repeatedly, anything I could get by Walt Whitman or about Walt Whitman while painting this work. Obviously, he’s the great poet who wrote “I Sing the Body Electric” and other poems that helped to define American Poetry and vernacular spirit. And obviously, culturally speaking, he was out as a gay man. He was a pioneer politically in that he was a very popular, nationally or worldwide known figure who was very proud for who he is. He changed language, in terms of his poetry. Leaves of Grass, for me, with the My American Dream series, is similar, where he for decades worked on this anthology of poems. He would change and put in things, and edit, and so on… But also, poetry is really close to painting, because it’s about two or more things—in poetry’s case, words—put together that create new meaning. And so, all of that I’m thinking about, but then I’m looking into this old sepia-toned photo taken of him, which was his favorite, one he called his “Lear photo.” For the last anthology of Leaves of Grass, it had this frontispiece of him as a dapper young man, which he turned against in his old age. He wanted this image to create an etching for the frontispiece of the book. I thought I would honor him by choosing his favorite photo of him. But then in this fuzzy daguerreotype, there’s all this weird stuff that’s happening in his beard, and happening in his hair, and happening in the aura around him that I want to bring out—there’s tons of faces and forms and figures in there. I would start seeing them as a painter, but then I didn’t want to literally describe them, because that would be sort of cheesy, to have all these people crawling around his beard. I want, obviously, to give him his prominence, but also immortality.
His figure is kind of coming together. It’s concrete, it’s there, but also, it’s effervescent. His words are coming out of his mouth or his beard or his chest, or like little butterflies. They’re all combining to create the spell of
what he was doing to me when I was listening to the poetry! I listen to it like music. And then you just keep listening repetitively. Sometimes when I don’t get things, I’ll rewind it until I totally get it, over and over and over again. I was mesmerized and taken away, and then suddenly, the muse leaves you. At this point I was like, I can’t do anymore on it, if I do anything else I’ll mess it up, that it won’t be real. It won’t be a primal experience of being enchanted. Then I would be illustrating the thing. It would be redundant, or I would be fixing it in the taskmaster working mode rather than feeling the moment and keeping me alive.