Arts / Culture

A Joan Didion retrospective has arrived at UCLA

joan didion exhibition

How do you quantify a life? Is it through possessions, accolades, admirers? Theatre critic and staff writer at The New Yorker, Hilton Als, is piecing together an “exhibition as portrait" of the late author and journalist Joan Didion, whom he considered a close friend.

The exhibition, which has been staged at Didion's Alma Mater University of California (albeit the Los Angeles campus), has been in the works since 2019, when Als pitched the idea to Didion and received her blessing. Entitled What She Means, the Joan Didion retrospective is a 215-large collection featuring her possessions, essays, as well as paintings from Vija Celmins, Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud; and photographs taken by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Brigitte Lacombe.

Works from Irving Penn, Jürgen Teller and Andy Warhol are integrated. There's even a film poster from the 1976 version of A Star is Born as well as a close-up film clip of John Wayne on loop, who was a subject of Didion's writing. Also included is footage from the plays Didion authored, like The Panic in Needle Park which she co-wrote with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Each piece has been thoughtfully included to evoke the unique context Didion found herself in – a writer caught between California and New York, her work emblematic of both coasts. It's for this reason that the exhibition has been split into four chronological parts; Holy Water: Sacramento, Berkeley (1934–1956), Goodbye to All That: New York (1956–1963), The White Album: California, Hawai‘i (1964–1988), and Sentimental Journeys: New York, Miami, San Salvador (1988–2021).

It's not the first time Hilton Als has mined the lives of beloved writers. In 2019 the writer curated a show about James Baldwin for David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, and earlier this year the gallery held an exhibit revolving around Toni Morrison too.

What She Means is open at the Hammer Museum, UCLA now until January 22, 2023.

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