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Author Joan Didion’s Life And Work Is Illustrated In New Hammer Museum Exhibit

A black and white photo of Joan Didion, wearing a black turtleneck sweater. The neck is pulled over her face, leaving only her shoulder-length hair and two hands at her temples in view.
Joan Didion, the focus of the new exhibit.
(Brigitte Lacombe
Courtesy of Hammer Museum )
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Less than one year after Joan Didion's death, a new exhibition at the Hammer Museum reminds Angelenos to continue to gaze — an act that the writer relied on to find her most insightful words in essays such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Opening this week, through January 22, Joan Didion: What She Means sets out to capture the author with a trove of works that include excerpts from her essays and novels, paintings, ephemera, photography, sculpture, and video.

Key Chapters In Her Life

With more than 200 objects on display from artists such as Vija Celmins, Andy Warhol, Pat Steir, Ed Ruscha, and Silke Otto-Knapp, the exhibition courses through key chapters in Didion’s life: growing up in Northern California; finding her writerly voice in New York; moving back to the Golden State, and chronicling her last decades in Miami, San Salvador, and New York.

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Organized by writer and New Yorker contributor Hilton Als, the exhibition stems from his studied veneration for Didion and his correspondence with her until her death last December.

“We’re so lucky that there was this opportunity for love to come her way while she was alive,” says Als. “That’s always a consolation for the living –– that you did your best and you gave this person your best.”

Als received Didion’s blessing to proceed with his curated portraiture of her life and texts.

“I was so afraid to ask because who wants to be rejected by Joan Didion, you know?” quips Als, who most recently curated a group exhibition honoring James Baldwin in 2019.

Didion received his email with fondness and responded, “...of course it will be beautiful.”

“What I love about Joan is that she was always giving me permission to try,” says Als.

Als wanted the exhibition's name to call back to Didion’s last published title in January 2021, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of 12 essays for which he wrote the introduction.

Creating The Exhibit

Initial conversations for the show began in the fall of 2019, in collaboration with Hammer Museum’s chief curator Connie Butler and curatorial assistant Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi.

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“The real gift has been working with Hilton, who is such an extraordinary thinker and a generous collaborator,” says Butler. “The curatorial process as a writer is quite different, and that has been quite fascinating and a wonderful journey.”

A striking pink and blue sky, with the sun peeking out behind a darkened horizon
Reel 77 of **** (Four Stars) (“Sunset”), 1967
(Andy Warhol
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute Courtesy of Hammer Museum )

Much of the research process involved closely re-reading texts by the writer and her favorite authors such as Joseph Conrad, V.S. Naipaul, and Ernest Hemingway. For Als, some works of art sprang to mind as he began his examinations, such as a drawing by Martin Puryear to include in the part of the exhibition about Didion’s emerging political consciousness, or Alan Saret’s abstract wire sculptures to evoke tumbleweeds and desert landscape.

A significant part of Butler and Onyewuenyi’s role was to augment California and include the feel of Sacramento. The exhibition begins with an arrangement of paintings depicting bodies of sun-soaked waters or purple mountains from Suzanne Jackson, Chiura Obata, and Elmer Wachtel in addition to lesser-known Central Valley-born painters who were beloved by local artists and thinkers.

Didion's Birthplace

This is a rich introduction to Didion’s birthplace, Sacramento, where she began ruminating about the precarity of land development and the stringent Protestant faith reverberating through the city that signifies “Sacrament.” Butler and Onyewuenyi thoughtfully ground the visitor in the realities of how the city was manufactured under the uniquely white light of the California sun, beating down on the topaz hues of rivers that splinter the Central Valley.

Onyewunyi recounts an early conversation with Als about the underlying themes of violence in California in many of Didion’s texts, which the collaborators point to in the show. This violence is seen in both the latent and blatant ways that original inhabitants of the Central Valley area have been pushed out by real estate developers and profiteers, a few of whom Didion acknowledges are a part of her lineage in older essays.

“She doesn’t mince words about her family’s past and how Sacramento is the phantom of California, and when you go deep into that, you find contradictions,” says Onyewuenyi. “I think we remember to find grace in the contradictions woven in Didion and her family's history.”

A pile of gold-painted bricks sits on a dark red colored palate on a gray-painted floor in front of a white wall.
Amanda Williams, It's a Goldmine/Is the Gold Mine?
Courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery)

Previously Unknown Work

Other exhibitions' pieces were made possible with Onyewuenyi’s extensive archival work. As a result, many of the pieces loaned or purchased for Joan Didion: What She Means come from new collaborators to the Hammer, such as the Center for Sacramento History and the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, both of which provided archival material to contextualize Didion’s hometown.

Other private supporters include Didion’s own family and estate, who granted permission for the museum to reprint three of Didion’s less-circulated essays in the exhibition catalog: In Praise of Unhung Wreaths and Love (1969), Planting a Tree Is Not a Way of Life (1975), and The Year of Hoping for Stage Magic (2007).

These texts show the gradual evolution of her politics and blunt observations — the facets of her authorship with which Didion lovers are already familiar — through new works that casual readers may see for the first time.

Overall, Als has manifested a show that uses all the offered mediums like mirrors to the societal and municipal phenomena that Didion documented. Some works feel like a call-and-response to her essays, underlining new or familiar political conditions of the society in which it was made. Others add depth and color to Didion’s observations, as they were completed in parallel with the writer’s discoveries at the time.

Ultimately, the exhibition succeeds because it remembers the mission that Didion has always asked of her readers: look out into the world and shock ourselves when we can.

“She’s my primary collaborator on this show,” says Als. “She’s with me, and as with her writing you have to tell the truth, so I hope the emotional truth is clear.”

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