Nerdrum creates six to eight paintings per year that have been categorized as: Still life paintings of small objects like bricks, portraits and self portraits whose subjects are dressed as if from some other time and place, and large paintings, allegorical in nature that present a sense of the apocalyptic, and again reference another time.
Nerdrum claims that his art should be understood as kitsch rather than art as such. "On Kitsch", a manifesto composed by Nerdrum describes the distinction he makes between kitsch and art. Nerdrum now lives in Iceland where he is applying for Icelandic citizenship. He divides his time between his home in Iceland and his farm in Norway.
Odd Nerdrum was born in 1944, in Sweden, during the last year of World War II. His parents, Resistance fighters, had been sent to Sweden from German occupied Norway to direct guerrilla activities from outside the country. At the end of the war, a year later, Odd and his parents moved back to Norway. Nerdrum’s mother, Lillemor soon after went to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The feeling of being unwanted and abandoned Nerdrum felt at this time would stay with him until he was in his late forties, at which time he would begin to understand the underlying reasons for the sensations he felt. In 1950, Nerdrum’s parents divorced, leaving Lillemor to raise two small children, Odd, and a younger brother, on her own.
Nerdrum's father, Johan Nerdrum later remarried. Although he was supportive, he kept an emotional distance between himself and his son. At his death, Odd was asked not to attend the funeral, and found out three years later that Johan was not his biological father. Odd was in fact, the result of a liaison between David Sandved and Lillemor. Lillemor and Sandved had had a relationship prior to Lillemor's marriage , and this was resumed during the war in a period when Johan was absent. Richard Vine, art critic, describes this episode in Nerdrum's life as one which created "a conflicted preoccupation with origins and personal identity," that "came natural to Nerdrum" and was represented in his pictures.
Nerdrum began his formal education in 1951 in Oslo, in a private Rudolf Steiner school rather than in the standard, public school system. This education would set Odd apart from his contemporaries. The system was based on anthroposophy that saw mankind as once living in harmony with the universe but now existing in a lesser state of rationality. Through spiritual or esoteric practice, Steiner believed mankind could find his its way back to a connection with higher realities and to renewed harmony with the universe. Learning for students was often kinesthetic, for example, through dramatic enactments of history and fantasy, and through musical exercises that were reminiscent of the patterns found on ancient Greek vases, depicting figures moving in parallel patterns. These parallel patterns could be found in later Nerdrum work, as can a sensibility for iconographic images and costume.
Jens Bjørneboe, a grade school mentor said Nerdrum even at that age exhibited tendencies of innate talent, industry, but also impatience with those with less abilities than himself.
As well, Nerdrum was a reader of visionary literature that included his early encounters with Rudolf Steiner, the prophetic William Blake , the dark Dostoyevsky, and the mystical Swedenborg. This would influence him towards a more vertical sensibility rather than the linear Marxist view based on revolution that influenced most artists with socially reformist sensibilities.
As a young student Nerdrum had encountered the works of the master painters in the National Museum. In particular, Rembrandt's, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) acted as a powerful antidote to his sensibilities. His disillusionment with modern art, such as Rauschenberg's Monogram, a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle section standing on a flat, littered surface, that Nerdrum had encountered in Moderna Museet, filled the young artist with disgust. These influences both positive and negative would impact all of Nerdrum's work. The end of Nerdrum's more contemporary scene-like work, and the movement towards more Rembrandt-like painting elements revolved around the enormous (11x16¾ foot) Refugees At Sea(1979-1980). Nerdrum, according to Vine, later considered the work to be naive in the sense that Rousseau defines the word, in which mankind is seen as innocent and innately good. In the painting Nerdrum endows the refugees, 27 Vietnamese boat people, with heroic stature, but in a highly sentimentalized manner that Nerdrum later described as "cloying".
In 1981 Nerdrum created a seminal work that would serve to indicate a change in direction from the sentimental view of Refugees at Sea to a more stark, unadorned view of reality. Twilight a rear view of a young woman alone in a wooded landscape defecating, offers nothing sentimental or ideal in its betrayal, but instead offers a stripped away view of life and reality.
Paintings were no longer as multi-figured as they had been with Refugees at Sea, and still lifes were of individual objects such as a brick or loaf of bread. The individuals who now populated Nerdrum’s painting were imbibed with great quite and stillness, but as Vine says, additionally, were vitally alive evoking a cosmic oneness, but yet did not transcend individuality.
These figures, as types rather than endowed with features or apparent stories that might distinguish them as individual, were costumed in garments that seemed timeless: furs, skins, leather caps, rather than in clothing that would link the viewer to a specific time and place.
Archetypal-like, these beings, inhabited pre-social, apocalyptic-like circumstances that included stark, severe landscapes, a reference to some place beyond our own time and space.
A well known 2000 horror film, The Cell, contains a scene that was heavily influenced by Nerdrum's 1990 painting, Dawn. The scene features three identical figures sitting down, looking upwards with pained, trance-like expressions on their faces. Director Tarsem Singh in the film's audio commentary says that the painting was the inspiration for the scene's imagery. Singh had seen the painting while visiting the owner of the painting, David Bowie.
Kunstnerforbundet 1967-70-73 Oslo-76-84
Galleri 27 Oslo 1972
The Bedford Way Gallery 1982
Martina Hamilton Gallery 1984
Delaware Art Museum Wilmington 1985
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago IL 1988
Lemberg Gallery Birmingham 1991 MI
Gothenburg art Museum Sweden 1991
Bergen Art Museum Norway 1992
Edward Thorp Gallery New-York 1992
New Orleans Museum of Art 1994
Forum Gallery, New-York 1996
Frye Art Museum, Seattle, 1997
Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo Norway 1998
Kunsthal Rotterdam, The Netherlands 1999
Amos Andersson Museum, Finland 1999
Young Classic, Harry Bergman Gallery, Alands Art museum 2000 Finland
Forum Gallery, New-York and Los Angeles 2002
Forum Gallery, New-York and Los Angeles 2004
Forum Gallery, Los Angeles 2006
Forum Gallery, New-York January 2007
Forum Gallery, New-York May 2007