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To Hell and Back: Sandow Birk’s Divine Comedy

February 18, 2012 through September 16, 2012

About halfway through my pathetic life, I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place. I’m not sure how I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns. — Dante in Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders, Dante’s Inferno (San Francisco: Trillium Press, 2003). 

Police helicopters descend upon the streets of Los Angeles. Gas-guzzling SUVs overtake the streets of San Francisco. Fast-food emblems and corporate logos dominate the American landscape. Is it the 24-hour news channel, or a 21st-century take on a 14th-century classic? In 2003, artist Sandow Birk (with writer Marcus Sanders) relocated Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy into contemporary urban America. In his illustrations for the three books (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), Birk depicted Dante as a sneaker- and hoodie-clad slacker. Accompanied by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, Dante journeys through the circles of Hell to Purgatory and Paradise, presented as versions of modern American cities. 

This exhibition features a selection from the museum’s permanent collection of Birk’s series of lithographs. Each meticulously drawn image incorporates a descriptive caption written in contemporary American vernacular. Birk transformed a centuries-old classic into an imaginary narrative with political relevance for today’s audiences. Click here to learn more.

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Sandow Birk
Canto XVI, 130-131: The Rise of Greyon,
from the series, “Dante’s Inferno”, 2003
Black and white lithograph
15 x 12 inches
Gift of Peter and Beverly Lipman
Photo courtesy of the artist

Sandow Birk
Canto III, 9–11: Dante At The Gates of Hell,
from the series, “Dante’s Inferno,” 2003
Black and white lithograph
15 × 12 inches
Gift of Peter and Beverly Lipman

Sandow Birk
Canto II, 39–41: The Celestial Pilot,
from the series, “Dante’s Inferno,” 2003
Black and white lithograph
15 × 12 inches
Gift of Peter and Beverly Lipman

Sandow Birk
Canto V, 121–123: In The Heaven of Mercury,
from the series, “Dante’s Paradiso,” 2005
Black and white lithograph
15 × 12 inches
Gift of Trillium Press, Brisbane, CA