On ViewHammer Museum
Joan Didion: What She Means
October 22, 2022–February 19, 2023
How does one paint a picture of an author’s life in visual form? Hilton Als’s latest curatorial project, Joan Didion: What She Means, currently on view at the Hammer Museum, posits an example of what an exhibition as a portrait can be. Als’s exhibition, curated in collaboration with the museum’s Connie Butler and Curatorial Assistant Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi is a creative exercise in itself, aiming to convey a chronology of the late author’s life through archival material, Didion’s writing, and an array of paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Didion had discussed the exhibition with Als before her passing and gave him her blessing to move forward with the idea. Published in full in the exhibition catalogue is a commencement speech Didion gave at UC Riverside in 1975 in which she encouraged the recent graduates, “Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try and get the picture.” This is what Als’s project also sets out to accomplish—trying to get the picture of Joan Didion’s life as an author and pioneer in the fields of New Journalism and contemporary writing that shaped the discourse, most especially, around California as a subject.
The exhibition most simplistically is a merging of the archival—including objects that you might find at a historical society—and the conceptual, stringing together an otherwise-eclectic group of modern and contemporary artworks. Peppered throughout the galleries, which are essentially arranged in a chronological order tracing Didion’s life, are family heirlooms, yearbook photos, and memorabilia from movies she worked on alongside thematically arranged paintings, sculptures, and photography by primarily American artists. The works selected for each “chapter” of the exhibition convey loosely related themes surrounding Didion’s life or writing at the time: in the section “Holy Water,” the works primarily revolve around subjects related to California and its waterways including Maren Hassinger’s steel-chain-and-rope sculpture that divides the gallery’s floor (River [1972/2011]) and Amanda Williams’s nod to the myth of California’s birth, a stack of gold-leaf-covered bricks on top of salvaged Chicago brick titled It’s a Goldmine/Is the Gold Mine? (2016).
Thematically oriented and intended to narrate Didion’s life, Als’s selection of works tends to convey more of a mood or a tone similar to Didion’s rather than being tied to any particular time or place. As such, the works are not objects that fit chronologically within the exhibition’s timeline of Didion’s life, but instead riff off of Didion’s writing, extrapolating on different threads of interest or what Als described in his walkthrough as interpretations. For instance, the photographs of Diane Arbus and paintings of John Koch are both included in the section “Goodbye to All That,” focusing on Didion’s early life as a writer in New York City, and convey contrasting depictions of New York and its inhabitants. Koch’s paintings portray a so-called realist depiction of the city’s upper classes in their living rooms and salons, such as Portrait of Dora in Interior (1957) which depicts a romanticized view of a woman in profile seated in a well-maintained and fashionably, though conservatively, decorated living room. A series of Arbus’s photos from her series taken at Times Square movie theaters distills a shifting culture only a few years after Koch’s painting was made, signaling the changing taste for entertainment spaces and the tension between the pull of the old and the new New York that Didion was operating in while beginning her career as a writer at Vogue.
The exhibition continues this use of juxtaposition to create a cross dialogue between Didion’s ephemera and the artworks to create a syncopated cacophony of voices that attempt to get at the complex web of culture and politics that the author sought to distill throughout her work. Didion herself does appear numerous times throughout the exhibition in the later galleries, signaling her own rise to fame and cultural significance. Jack Pierson’s Untitled White Album (1991), a graphite-on paper-facsimile of the first page of Didion’s essay, and Diamond Life (1990), an installation with found objects including Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer (1977), exude the pull of her growing influence by using her text as a stand-in for her image. Other photographs of the elder author appear in the later galleries, including her campaign for Céline photographed by Juergen Teller (2015) and Irving Penn’s famed black-and-white portrait of Didion (1996).
As a whole, Als’s exhibition is both an homage to Didion and a creative exercise that takes her life and writing as a starting point for a curatorial dialogue. The structure of the exhibition and the work it presents are ultimately difficult to follow, though pleasurable if one is a fan of both Didion and Als as thinkers; it leaves the viewer with little if any larger statement about the author’s life and impact that has not already been stated elsewhere in Als’s previous writings or in the 2017 documentary about Didion’s life, The Center Will Not Hold. However, the show does offer an important gesture; a nuanced, rich, and beautiful memorial for Didion. On the exterior of the gallery there is a mural-sized image of Brigitte Lacombe’s iconic 1996 image of Didion tucking her face into her black turtleneck. Standing in front of this monumental image drives home her larger-than-life influence and memorializes her importance as an artistic force.