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New Yorker magazine critic Hilton Als has curated an exhibition on writer Joan Didion


The death of Joan Didion a year ago inspired an outpouring of tributes. The writer had become synonymous with the 1960s in her home state of California. Among her fans is the critic Hilton Als of The New Yorker. He's curated an exhibition about Joan Didion called "What She Means," now at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. NPR's Bilal Qureshi takes us there.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: One of the first sounds you might hear in the temporary museum of Joan Didion is actually not the writer herself. It's a vinyl record spinning on an old turntable. The music is part of an installation by the artist Jack Pierson. He's assembled what could be the corner of a writer's apartment, a slightly messy and disorganized one. There's an empty chair sitting by a shelf, unopened books, and the living remains of the day, as curator Connie Butler explains.

CONNIE BUTLER: The flowers, the orange marigolds that you see on the table are actually replenished every week. They're meant to wilt and die over the course of the week, as well as, in the coffee cup, there's some old coffee and remnants of cigarettes.

HILTON ALS: This installation was about someone in their room, and someone in their room dreaming, and Joan Didion is one of the catalysts for dreams. I love that piece for that reason.

QURESHI: That's the writer Hilton Als, who began working on the show in 2019 with Joan Didion's blessings.

ALS: The idea would be that life could be seen. A life could be tactile. A life could be walked around, inhabited by a viewer.

QURESHI: Als and Didion were friends, and a recording of a conversation between them is one of the 200 artworks in the show. There are also large-scale passages from her writing printed on the gallery walls. Joan Didion wrote dark, cutting observations about American society. As she told NPR in 1977...


JOAN DIDION: I am more attracted to the underside of the tapestry. I tend to always look for the wrong side, the bleak side.

QURESHI: But this is not an exhibition of her writing instruments or personal things. Those were recently auctioned in a bidding war that speaks to her enduring fame. Instead, this is a show about atmosphere and the California of the Manson murders, Black Panthers and counterculture that formed Joan Didion. Again, curator Hilton Als.

ALS: She was just very interested in how the myth of California, the pioneer spirit, had gotten sort of derailed in modern California, and then she began to see the ways in which racism worked and money worked and sexism worked. She began to understand that there was no centrality to California, that it was many different kinds of worlds at the same time.

QURESHI: For years, Hollywood was one of her worlds. She co-wrote the screenplay for the 1976 version of "A Star Is Born."


KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: (Singing) Watch closely now.

QURESHI: But even as she critiqued the LA image machine, she became a celebrity in her own right. As Connie Butler explains, the show reflects the tension between Didion, the writer, and Didion, the star.

BUTLER: And we tried to go for images that aren't the classic one of her leaning against the Corvette smoking, where she is gorgeous and stylish and fantastic. But we tried to look for slightly other things. I mean, in the last gallery there are several images of her as a very elderly person and still stylish at that moment, still beautiful at that moment.

QURESHI: Joan Didion died last December in the midst of a new reckoning with privilege and race in American art. For some writers here in California, her narrative of the state is up for debate. Earlier this year, the essayist Elaine Castillo published a scathing takedown of Didion's brand of West Coast cool. But Hilton Als, who is Black and queer, says the focus on her origins and image misses the point.

ALS: I feel very defensive about her in that way. And it's just - it's bizarre to me that it's even an issue, what she looks like. Please just read her.

QURESHI: One of the last sort of things I want to ask you about, again, is the sort of museum exhibition of Joan Didion question, which is that - the show that you've created, which is, now, we're talking almost a year to her death, and it could have this posthumous memorial feeling, and yet it doesn't.

ALS: No, because her work is alive. You have to think about it as an alive thing. So how could you respond by mummifying it? You could only respond by saying what was beautiful and what you're responding to because you're alive to the experience of reading her. No, she's alive. Those words are alive.

QURESHI: The exhibition "Joan Didion: What She Means" is at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until the end of February and will open later next year in Miami.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.