Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum famously obsesses over his large-scale, classical works, often repainting his canvases over and over again with the help of a small band of apprentices. Working in the Old Master style, his apprentices live and work with him, sometimes for years at a time, helping to stretch his canvases and pose as models. The often graphic and sexual works, which he staunchly describes as its own genre of “Kitsch” and which carry price tags well into six figures apiece, seem of the 17th century and cheekily postmodern at the same time.
Several of Nerdrum’s works are on view alongside those of three apprentices through Jan. 2 in a show called “Pupils of Apelles” at Bergamot Station’s CoproGallery, owned by Greg Escalante, co-founder of the underground contemporary art magazine Juxatpoz. With the 70-year-old Nerdrum soon headed to prison for tax evasion, fans might wonder if the Copro paintings will be his last. Not so, said Nerdrum, who chatted with me via email from Norway.
With your Old Master, Renaissance-style paintings, are you an iconoclast of sorts, working in classical, figurative painting amid a contemporary art world that’s more conceptual, abstract and minimalist?
Magic is the only concern I deal with when it comes to painting. I am only interested in finding and knowing other magicians like myself. The time which I have been thrown into does not interest me.
Old-school art apprenticeships in the way you execute them -- intimate, one-on-one mentoring, outside of the traditional academic establishment, with students living with you sometimes for years -- is something of a lost tradition. Why do you do it?
An art sociologist asked me: “What are you doing? Are you crazy? What do you want with your life? You can never get fame, you will never become rich and it is terribly difficult. So why do you do this?” I said: “I can’t answer you.” He said: “Don’t try with any sentimental answers.” Then after a week, I called him and said: “I know what my goal is.” “What is it?” he said. “My goal is to make a masterpiece.” He was not very happy with the answer, but he had to accept it. For this same reason, it is important that young people have a mentor to build their knowledge upon.
Are you teaching your students practical painting techniques or a way of life?
You’re going to prison for tax evasion, and you won’t be able to paint. How will not painting for a year affect you?
The worst thing about prison is to not be with my wife and family. I am especially bound to them because my practical condition is not at its fullest.
Why didn’t you just pay the taxes in the first place?
I have always been a good taxpayer. But my jurisdictional position is weak. As the German philosopher Hegel said: “Those who do not follow Zeitgeist (the spirit of the time) should have no legal rights.” My son Öde told me after reading the last sentence that the verdict was that 2,000 U.S. dollars were not paid.
You chose to exhibit your paintings in the CoproGallery show alongside those of your apprentices. Why?
Dialogue between paintings is something I have never understood. Nonetheless, I think it is uplifting to exhibit with people who have become part of the family; and with family, I mean twin souls.
Do you see yourself reflected in their work -- and do they influence your painting?
Yes, I learn from the young pupils’ refined skin values, something which is easily lost in a brutal world.
Some people have said that your Copro paintings may be your last. Do you believe that?
No. Painting is living. It is my bloodstream that keeps moving.