Professor Hilton Als brings UC Berkeley alumna’s written consciousness to life with exhibition Joan Didion: What She Means

Hilton Als, co-curator of Joan Didion: What She Means, during the show’s installation at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Credit: Bethany Mollenkof for The New York Times

February 1, 2023

UC Berkeley professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hilton Als has worked with UC Berkeley alumna and pioneer of New Journalism Joan Didion (Sacramento, California, 1934 - Manhattan, New York, 2021) throughout his career, even writing the foreword to her final book of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Now, he has curated Joan Didion: What She Means, which opened less than a year after Didion’s death at age 87 and will remain on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through Feb. 19, 2023. 

In his previous coverage of Didion’s work for The New Yorker in 2019, Als focused on her stories that transformed the standard narrative of American womanhood. Now, with Joan Didion: What She Means, he continues to depict Didion’s storytelling in a new medium. 

“So I don’t want you to think of this as a definitive portrait of Joan, where we’re still learning from her,” Als said in his introduction to the exhibition. “But what’s important to know is that I’m borrowing really from the collage effects of her work, and particularly her late work, where she pulled in a lot of kinds of information in order to make an essay or to make a portrait of a place or a person.” 

The exhibition features about 50 artists, ranging from Betye Saar to Maren Hassinger, and more than 200 pieces of artwork, including painting, photography, sculpture, video and ephemera. The exhibition aims to present the narration of life from one artist to another. 

Joan Didion: What She Means, installation view
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, October 11, 2022–February 19, 2023. Photo: Jeff McLane

Over the course of her career, Didion produced a variety of memorable works across genres, among them personal essays, pop culture critiques, political writings and a memoir. Several of her pieces inspired by growing up in Sacramento comprise Where I Was From (2003), a collection of essays detailing California’s history and culture. Another take on California, her 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, follows protagonist Maria Wyeth in late-1960s to early-’70s Hollywood. 

Als, in conjunction with chief curator Connie Butler and curatorial assistant Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, framed the exhibition in chronological chapters according to the places Didion considered home throughout her life.

“I always believe that exhibitions should ultimately be about creating an atmosphere, that when you create an atmosphere of inquiry about a subject, whether it’s a writer or a painter, it is up to the curator to invite you into that world that the work has inspired,” Als said in his discussion of the exhibition. “But it’s also inspired deeper thinking about visual culture. … And so, in a way, the show is a complete collaboration between me, the curator, and the subject.” 

The first chapter, titled Holy Water: Sacramento, Berkeley (1934-1956), is inspired by Didion’s essay Holy Water (1977), which centers on the late author’s obsession with “elaborate plumbing.” It features several pieces in alignment with Didion’s perceived view of the state as a fifth-generation Californian and student at UC Berkeley. 

One of the pieces, Pat Steir’s July Waterfall (1991), was particularly selected for its ability to convey movement that is abstract and literal, according to Als.

Pat Steir, July Waterfall, 1991 Oil on canvas. 114 3/8 × 103 in. (290.5 × 261.6 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

“A native of Sacramento, part of her life's work was to really understand the state that made her and her family,” Als said in his introduction. “She gave Californians language about their home.” 

The exhibition follows Didion’s life as her career progressed, with the second chapter, Goodbye to All That: New York, 1956-1963, focusing on her years working for Vogue in New York after winning an essay contest the magazine had sponsored. 

This section highlights Didion’s growth as a writer as she completed her first novel and met her life partner during this time. It incorporates Michele Zalopany’s Temptation to Exist (1990) and John Koch’s Friends (1956), among other pieces.  

Following New York, Didion returned to California at the start of the 1960s, which is where the exhibition continues.  

“The third section, ‘The White Album: California, 1964-1988,’ has a tremendous kind of resonance here because it’s also the tumult in the country that time is something that she was writing about,” Als said in his discussion of the exhibition. “Class distinctions, gender distinctions were all breaking down.” 

The third chapter attempts to display this disconnection through several pieces, including artifacts, screenplays and ephemera from Didion’s work stored at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library; Mick Jagger on the soundtrack of Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969); Bill Owens’ photograph of violence against a Black man at Altamont; and sections on race in Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and “Good Citizens” from The White Album (1979), among others. 

In its conclusion, Sentimental Journeys: New York, Miami, Honolulu, San Salvador, 1988-2021, the exhibition hones in on the latter portion of Didion’s life. 

“As she wrote, she became much more interested in society and less interested in self. She told me that she didn’t want to become a ‘Miss Lonelyhearts,’” Als said in his discussion of the exhibit. “She began to be less afraid of, quote unquote, ‘intellectual material,’ and she began to report in ways that were profound, particularly in terms of Latin America and in terms of race in America.”

Joan Didion: What She Means, installation view
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, October 11, 2022–February 19, 2023. Photo: Jeff McLane

As the final section of the exhibition, the chapter aims to display the intersections of gender, race and class among America and how Didion developed as both a writer and individual to focus on the atmospheres that surround her. 

“What we are trying to do in the exhibition is give you visual information about a person who came out redefined but whose roots are in California and whose major preoccupation as a writer was a foreign country to her, was to say her home, and a lot of us feel that way, that we are strangers and in love with the place that we were from,” Als said in the introduction.

Joan Didion: What She Means is on display at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from Oct. 11, 2022-Feb. 19, 2023. The exhibition will move to the Perez Art Museum in Miami from July 13, 2023-Jan. 7, 2024.  

In addition to teaching his classes Modern Drama and Playwriting in the English Department this Spring, Als will also be making a number of UC Berkeley-affiliated appearances that will be open to the public, including speaking with filmmaker and 2022-23 Una’s lecturer Apichatpong Weerasethakul at the Townsend Center for Humanities on April 11, 2023 at 5 p.m, co-sponsored by the Berkeley Museum and Pacific Film Archive; and on April 26, 2023 at 12 p.m., Als will give a Berkeley Book Chat about his most recent book My Pinup, which was just longlisted for the 2023 PEN Literary Award