L.A. Artist Sandow Birk on Caravaggio’s Lasting Legacy

An overarching premise of the exhibition Bodies and Shadow: Caravaggio and His Legacy is the artist’s legacy as it echoed across decades and even centuries of European painting. But an artist working in Long Beach right now has a surprisingly direct connection to the 16th century master.

Sandow Birk is candid in recalling that when he first encountered Caravaggio’s work as a student studying abroad, he was just a kid from L.A. who knew little about the art of painting. Struck by the dramatic poses, strong lighting and emotional impact that he saw in Caravaggio, Birk knew that he wanted to paint like that. Just as Caravaggio often took his models from the streets of Rome, Birk painted what he saw around him–street scenes of 1990s Los Angeles, populated by kids in hooded sweatshirts in urban landscapes marked by street graffiti. He arranged the figures in compositions directly traceable to Caravaggio.

We interviewed Birk in his Long Beach studio recently. Excerpts from that video are part of the multimedia tour of the exhibition, available to rent on site. The tour covers more than two dozen highlights of the exhibition, including not only work by Caravaggio, but also one of Birk’s other favorites, the Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges de la Tour, from LACMA’s collection. Birk’s love of painting is palpable in the video, as is his process of learning through close observation of the work of Caravaggio and other artists in this exhibition.

Amy Heibel

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