At Large  February 6, 2023  Dian Parker

Hilton Als: The Pulitzer Winning Critic Discusses the Art of Curating

Ali Smith

Portrait of Hilton Als

Hilton Als is many things: author, curator, critic, teacher, and winner of many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has curated exhibitions ranging from the VeneKlasen/Werner Gallery to David Zwirner; written about performers from David Bowie to Prince; spent years reviewing theater for The New Yorker; and currently teaches at Columbia, and the University of California, Berkeley. He has curated “exhibitions as portraits” of Alice Neel, Celia Paul, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and others.

He is also a generous and humble human being, a rare quality in one so lauded in our world today. His is not a false humility. In all of his work he has the ability to exalt his subject without drawing attention to himself. When being interviewed, he gives equal measure to the interviewer and to those who he has worked with. He seems to forget no one. The expanse of his influence is broad. 

Als’s art curation is unique. He doesn’t mount shows that only focus on an artist’s work; he places the work in a narrative, bringing in other artists, texts, and settings to give a fuller, deeper understanding of the artist. Like a theatre director, Als gives us atmosphere and subtext to all of his work, whether it is art curation, his books, theatre, or art reviews. The viewer and reader of his work come away with a new way of looking and experiencing––a mark of greatness.

Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe & Lacombe, Inc.

Joan Didion Backstage at the Booth Theatre, 2007.

Most recently Als has curated a Joan Didion exhibition, What She Means, at the Hammer Museum in LA, running through February 19, then moving to the Perez Art Museum Miami. In our interview about the current Didion exhibit, Als told me, “I wanted to show the trajectory of and the developments of someone’s consciousness.” This intention saturates all of his work, including his teaching about queer writers like Thomas Mann, Carson McCullers, Dennis Cooper, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin who have all, as Als said, “produced a body of literature that increases our understanding of difference.”

This broad encompassing, contextualizing focus in all of his work can be summed up in his statement about the current curatorial climate. “There is altogether too much talk about the object as an isolated creation, separate from the world of its creator. Viewing art in this way undermines its power to teach us about empathy, about who we are or who we are not, in relation to an artist or to the world at large.”

Our conversation continued as follows:

Dian Parker (A&O): You have not been reviewing theatre for the New Yorker for many years but moved on to writing about a variety of other interests. For the last twelve years, you’ve curated a number of exhibitions for galleries and museums. Your current exhibition of Didion’s work, What She Means, as well as the past show about James Baldwin, God Made My Face, at David Zwirner, are parallel in how you pair their stories with visuals.

Hilton Als (Als): It’s a great opportunity to speak in another language. The visual has great import. The writing about the subject is a collaboration with the artist, whether alive or dead. I’m making atmospheres, environments to think about American culture in a different way. It is a gift as a curator to use their enormous words and ideas and to understand them as best I can. I give their words visual energy. Visual components speak to me.

A&O: You have the ability in your curation to crack through the fantasy of American culture, just as Didion and Baldwin were able to do in their writing. I see that same craft in the way you choose your images, how you are able to convey Didion and Baldwin visually.

Als: They were crafts people who were able to see without sentimentalizing their country. And to talk about where they were from; America, which they found troubled and troubling, but it was still their home. So much of what we see is commodified in the world. Things are pasteurized for easy ingestion. My first experience in museums as a kid was a Robert Rosenberg retrospective. It was a seminal moment not knowing what he was doing. There were docents then at MoMA. One of them explained the work to me. It was as if the top of my head blew off listening to her. That there could be a linguistic equivalent to the complications of the visual world. People need to use the same care with the text as with the visuals.

A&O: At the Met Opera in 2016, you curated “Desdemona for Celia by Hilton” with paintings by Celia Paul. In that exhibit it felt as if you were trying to erase the divide between the public and private self. The raw honesty and vulnerability in the paintings and what you revealed in the catalogue about fear, jealousy, and love with Desdemona, Othello, Celia, and yourself. 

Als: It’s wild that you pointed that out. Dodie Kazanjian at the Met asked me to do a show about myself, to put myself forward. In my life I’ve always put other people first.

Wikimedia Commons

What She Means will be moving to the moving to the Perez Art Museum in Miami in the coming weeks. Photo by Phillip Pessar.

A&O: You have the ability to bring yourself into the work without moralizing and with deep examination for all involved, including yourself.  Like in your exhibit about Baldwin and your understanding of how much he sacrificed for the movement.

Als: The personal cost is profound. I’m talking about alchemy. How much we give up of ourselves to self-expression and how much to people. I thought if you lived in the world generously it would come back to you and it would make people different. Hard lessons to learn. Joan’s (Didion) protection was that she had her marriage, which was crucial. I don’t think Baldwin ever had that.

A&O: What is your focus as a curator?

Als: It’s as if I’m bewitched by the artist. I’m interested in the conversation that other artists engender in me. Has to have different layers to it. I’m not interested in artists, painters, writers, or performers who are not far-ranging and who are not taking care of us and being honest with us about their multiplicity of self. It’s as if I’m in graduate school and they know more stuff than I do. I am humbled by that, but not intimidated. If you’re intimidated you don’t learn anything. I’m humbled by their gifts. The impetus for the exhibition is always respect for their achievement. I don’t want to make things that are comparable to their achievement.

A&O: That is clear in all of your work. Humility and reverence. We can’t learn anything if we don’t have that.

Als: There’s no historizing, no context now for the way the thing existed and didn’t exist before. There’s a lot of information about the self without understanding the components of what goes into making the self, the history. We’ve lost the thread and the patience that history demands. Just a series of impulses.

A&O: You said once that you have to be porous and open when you walk into a gallery or museum, which is giving the viewer responsibility. It is an exchange.

Wikimedia Commons

Author James Baldwin is one of several individuals Als cites as influential in his life and work. Portrait by R. L. Oliver, Los Angeles Times, 1964.

Als: Collaboration again. If you’re not, there there’s just a bunch of stuff on the wall. If you’re not there to be enlivened by it and in conversation with it, what’s the point? A museum and gallery are public institutions whose primary goals are to house people in their ideas in a context to see yourself, to see the world. I’m amazed, frankly, how shortsighted the institution has become. It is for our use, not to be used by the institution, where we learn in and from. This shift in power is very weird. The curator is telling a story we can listen to.

A&O: What artists and writers are you indebted to?

Als: Proust, Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Marianne Moore…there are a lot of people. Jean Rhys wrote “if she didn’t write, she will not have earned death.” If I don’t create, I would not have earned this conversation. Creating in that way is the ultimate for me as an artist. An exchange that is as emotionally accurate as possible.

A&O: That speaks for your character, that you can expose yourself and make yourself vulnerable coupled with generosity. Thank you. What is next for you as a curator?

Als: I’ve been invited to do a residency at the Huntington Museum in California. I pitched to them a show about sons and mothers. It’s even more personal. I’m scared and excited but it’s not daunting. Huntington has amazing antiquities; their archives are incredible. When I curate, I’m always shocked that people show up. And grateful. Honestly.

About the Author

Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website

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