An Update and Commentary on Odd Nerdrum's Harsh Prison Sentence

Norwegian press sources reported yesterday that artist Odd Nerdrum, 68, has been sentenced by an Oslo appeals court to an increased term of 2 years and 10 months in prison. The sentence, which is expected to restrict the artist from painting -- considered by the court to be a commercial activity -- is based on the artist's earlier conviction on charges of gross tax fraud for a sum of around $2.6 million. Nerdrum, who had been sentenced to a 2 year term in August of 2011, was given the longer sentence after appealing the original ruling.

Reached for comment, Nerdrum's son Bork Spildo Nerdrum says that his father's lawyer "is in shock because the court has tricked all the numbers up." Bork Nerdrum also says that "the case is a miscarriage of justice." Asbjørg Lykkjen, the lead prosecutor for Nerdrum's 2011 case, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she was satisfied with the appeals court ruling. "As a preventative measure," she asserted, "tax evasion must be strictly punished."

The complex scenario behind the tax charges date back to 1989. In the artist's version of events, approximately forty paintings, each valued in the low six figure range, had begun to disintegrate due to an experimental medium that he had used to paint them. Nerdrum made new versions of these allegedly defective works between 1989 and 2002 and then offered them as replacements to their owners.

Norwegian tax authorities taxed Nerdrum for both the sale of the originals, which he wrote off as a loss, as well as the replacements given to his clients. The court's original decision hinged on a Chase, New York bank account, which Nerdrum claims is not his, and an Austrian bank box which had held some $900,000. The artist claims the Austrian cash was a loan from his New York gallery intended as a safety fund for clients who wanted a refund instead of replacement paintings. During his trial the artist presented a notarized contract between himself and the gallery, mentioning this sum, as well as its purpose, which the court judged irrelevant. Prosecutors asserted that Nerdrum went to great lengths to hide money he had earned, as well as traces of it. 

According to Richard T. Scott, a former student on Nerdrum's who has been following the proceedings, Nerdrum has already made full financial restitution.
"It was acknowledged by the court that the artist had paid the taxes in full. Nerdrum claims that he, in fact, paid twice - and the Norwegian tax authorities actually owe him money. Having seen how the Norwegian press and government has been aggressively biased against him for many years, I think the court presumed him guilty from the beginning, and asked it of him to prove his innocence. I know the Norwegian judicial system follows the Napoleonic code, but innocent until proven guilty seems to me to be a basic premise of justice."
Nerdrum, an artist whose representational works have gained attention for their idiosyncratic and often frankly sexual imagery, has claimed that the government is intent on persecuting him, and that the prison sentence is intended to drive him to suicide. During a September, 2011 appearance on the Swedish talk show Skavlan, Nerdrum, who has refused to give interviews to Norwegian media due to their perceived bias against him, claimed to have been targeted by government officials. He asserts that an undercover agent from ØKOKRIM (The Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime) told a group of artists at a 1996 party: "It is Nerdrum we shall take someday." A few moments later, after making critical remarks about Norway's labor party Nerdrum states "Thus, they began to operate with all possible variants to get me."

 The interview can be watched below:

A Commentary...

 Given the complex and confusing nature of this case, and the dramatic statements made by the artist himself, it seems nearly impossible for anyone outside the courtroom to determine whether or not Odd Nerdrum is guilty of tax evasion. However, what is clear -- in my opinion -- is that Norway's courts have given the artist an inordinately harsh sentence which has enhanced the already Kafkaesque flavor of the affair. 

Taking away the brush and palette of its most widely known painter puts Norway in a different light to the world, and begs comparison to China's treatment of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Ironically, the actions of Norwegian courts will very likely enhance Odd Nerdrum's fame, and lead to increased recognition and higher prices for his works. If Norway's prosecutors truly believe he evaded taxes, why wouldn't full restitution and a house arrest put the matter to rest? The harshness of Nerdrum's sentence gives credibility to his claims of persecution, which might otherwise seem paranoid.

The best commentary I can think of for what has happened in Nerdrum's case comes from the notebooks of the philosopher and historian Bertrand Russell, who understood the battle between the artist's need for freedom and the state's need to control:
"Art springs from a wild and anarchic side of human nature; between the artist and the bureaucrat there must always be a profound mutual antagonism, an age-long battle in which the artist, always outwardly worsted, wins in the end through the gratitude of mankind for the joy that he puts into their lives. If the wild side of human nature is to be permanently subjected to the orderly rules of the benevolent, uncomprehending bureaucrat, the joy of life will perish out of the earth, and the very impulse to live will gradually wither and die."

At the Rothko Chapel: Art, Meditation and Reverence

"Resting the mind can be accomplished by meditation, and also by artwork, which allows the intuition to flow: the conscious mind recedes. Meditation and artwork at their best complement each other, and true things emerge." - Candace Loheed
In doing research for my recent blog about the impact of the Richard Diebenkorn "Ocean Park" exhibition at The Orange County Museum of Art, I discovered something noteworthy in the public response to the show. During my 3 visits to OCMA I had noticed that the galleries were unusually hushed, and that people were taking their time, lingering in front of the paintings. Slow looking, rather like the intense scrutiny a painter might give his or her own work during the course of its creation, was very much in evidence.

 Normally, I think that people go to art exhibits to "see" things, but something about Diebenkorn's large abstractions caused some to use seeing as a way to access another kind of experience. More than a few visitors wanted to meditate on the paintings; to use their inspections of the art as a means to turn inward towards both the personal and the spiritual.

 Meditating on a painting can be a way of "connecting" with the original state of mind of the image's creator, since the act of painting itself can be said to be a form of meditation. Artist Robert Morrisey, who is also a trained art therapist, explains how this might work:
"The practice of perceptual representation enlists the principles of and is analogous to the practice of 'meditation'. It cultivates an awareness of the intrusions and distractions of the mind that impede perception. It requires a slow, steady and sustained point of focus. It demands our time, patience and trust. It rewards the practitioner with a richer and deeper understanding of and empathy for the world we inhabit."
Several people intimately involved with the presentation of the "Ocean Park" show made a connection with meditation. The exhibition's curator, Sarah Bancroft, told me that her regular visits to the show had been a "daily meditation."

 Author Peter Clothier, who has observed that museum goers spend an average of 6 seconds in front of a painting, came to OCMA to facilitate one of his "One Hour/One Painting" workshops. Clothier gathered small groups to sit in front of individual Diebenkorn paintings for an hour. He then asked his participants to meditate on the works, with their eyes alternating between open and closed. Zen poet Peter Levitt, who contributed an essay to the "Ocean Park" catalog, later facilitated a standing meditation and writing workshop for museum docents. "I gave them ways to see them not with their eyes," says Levitt.

 Richard Diebenkorn, who was famously down-to-earth, would have likely been puzzled by the idea of people "meditating" on his works, and most art museums are conceived with the idea that shows should present well lit paintings to crowds of visitors who will be chatting with each other, or listening to docent talks and audio tours. Meditation, especially silent meditation, seems to belong in Temples, Ashrams or memorial chapels.

 There is, however, one especially fine place in the United States where silent meditation in the presence of great modern paintings is encouraged. It is the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Established in 1971 by John and Dominique de Menil, who were avid collectors of modern art, the chapel houses a suite of fourteen deeply toned purple and maroon abstract murals painted by Mark Rothko in 1967.

 The entry lobby of the Rothko chapel displays sacred texts from a wide range of religious traditions, but the experience it provides doesn't have to be religious. "The chapel invites people to experience the divine on their own terms; or not." explains Emilee Whitehurst, the chapel's Executive Director. As Dominque de Menil explained in 1977, the chapel was conceived to provide a non-traditional sacred environment:
"The Rothko Chapel is oriented towards the sacred, and yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where a common orientation could be found -- an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience."
Emilee Whitehurst says that one of the chapel's intended functions is to bring a sense of reverence into a secular setting using modern art as a touchstone. "The de Menils were very passionate about the need for reverence," Whitehurst notes. "They were Catholic, but they also had broader spiritual convictions. They felt it was a tragedy that the modern and the sacred were diverging, and that the Catholic Church was not recognizing modern art."

Mark Rothko, who was Jewish, was commissioned by the de Menils to create paintings for the chapel because they saw his work as reaching towards a modern, universal religiosity. Dominique de Menil felt strongly that "...real creators, always working at the edge of their perceptions, may reach spiritual regions bordering on the sacred." She also held the conviction that Rothko's works represented a "search for the infinite," one that had emerged from "dark and silence." The reactions of visitors over the past 40 years, suggest that Mrs. de Menil was correct:

 "These paintings are the colors I see when I close my eyes at night," wrote a visitor named Jessica on December 8, 1988. " I feel grief, a grave sense of loss... then exhilaration and calm."

 Mark Rothko once told art historian William C. Seitz: "One does not paint for design students or historians, but for human beings, and the reaction in human terms is the only thing that is satisfying for me." Rothko might have been surprised at the range of human interactions that now take place in front of his paintings. The Rothko Chapel is available for ceremonies including weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs and memorial services (without caskets). Programs, including concerts, lecture services and symposia regularly use the august Rothko paintings as their backdrop.

 Among the many regular programs offered by the Rothko is "Twelve Moments of Spirituality and Healing." Held on the first Wednesday of every month, the program provides "guided meditations offering an opportunity for healing and spiritual development." In the presence of Rothko's brooding murals, practitioners of Buddhist, Sikh, Tapping, Muslim, Christian and other meditation traditions will be leading meditations in the coming months.


A Meditation Session at the Rothko Chapel in Houston

"The Rothko Chapel is here for people every day," states Emilee Whitehurst. "It is such a gift." "The world today needs many more Rothko Chapels," wrote a visitor in chapel's comment book in July, 1994, and the world seems to be getting more. Not far from the Rothko Chapel, James Turrell's new "Twilight Epiphany" at Rice Univesity provides seating for 120 people who can observe changes in the sky in a contemplative fashion. It is one of 25 "skyspaces" that Turrell has created across the world in the past 4 decades.

 The Board of Trustees of Stanford University recently approved $4.2 million dollars for the construction of the "Windhover Contemplative Center," due to open in 2014, where visitors will "rest in quiet reflection" in the presence of 4 paintings by the late Nathan Oliveira. Unlike Rothko's Houston murals - which are abstract - Oliveira's large canvases are semi-abstract, and feature images of wings and horizons that connect with the vision of a soaring falcon in Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem "The Windhover: To Christ our Lord." 

 Although Oliveira was raised Catholic, his "Windhover" paintings reflect a spirituality that is poetic and responsive. He told Stanford Magazine in 2003, when discussing his series that "... a painting is also a vehicle. I set it up to the degree that it gives you something recognizable to interact with, and if you're creative, you create your own metaphor." 

 Stanford already has a church, the glorious Italianate "Memorial Church" that has survived two major earthquakes, so to some, having a contemplative center might seem redundant. Of course, strictly speaking a church is for prayer, and prayer is directed to God. Modern art, whether seen in a museum or a comtemplative center is meant to direct people inward, not outward. Meditation, and "mindfulness" are for an emerging generation consider themselves "spirtual but not religious." 

 Then again, maybe meditation and prayer are closer than one might expect. Buddhist author Phillip Moffitt equates Christian "prayer" with Buddhist "intention," and Buddhist "mindfulness" with Christian "observance." Whatever the case, it appears that there is a growing trend to see modern art - especially abstract art - as a spiritual gateway.

 In art museums and galleries, expect to see more slow looking and meditating. When I see it I plan to respectfully stay quiet and let it happen: I may try it myself.  After all, for many of us, art galleries and museums are as close to church as we ever get. "With the eclipse of religion in the West," says David Greusel, an architect who specializes in the design of places where people come together, "the art museum has replaced the cathedral as the building type with the greatest architectural, social, and spiritual significance in a community."

Joseph Goldyne: Waterfalls

For the past six years, Sonoma based artist and art historian Joseph Goldyne has been painting waterfalls, including small preparatory studies in indelible ink and oil, oils on paper, and vertical oil paintings on six-foot by eighteen inch canvases. Each waterfall is a product of the artist's imagination, and also a meditation on a wide range of artistic traditions. Now on view at Sullivan Goss in Santa Barbara through July 1st, Goldyne's waterfalls -- seen together -- are a visual essay on balance, flow and renewal.


Joseph Goldyne, "Heights," 11 x 7 inches | Mixed media on paper

John Seed Interviews Joseph Goldyne:

JS: What can you tell me about the history of your waterfalls? How long have you been working with these images, and what kinds of inspirations and sources are behind them?

JG: I began to paint waterfalls in 2005. They have been a departure for me in a number of ways. For several decades, my work had been of fairly small size. I suppose the best-known pieces are the monotypes that began in the late 60s and that I still enjoy making. During the 70s, 80s and 90s I frequently found myself choosing a vertical format for the monotypes and some edition works as well. It seems I was drawn to the attenuated or compressed format long before I became preoccupied with waterfalls. I always favored shapes that soared: great trees and spindley flowers, skyscrapers and Egyptian obelisks. There is an aspirational aspect to such geometry that has always appealed to me. I also wanted to work larger and with paint.


Joseph Goldyne, "Fall XVI," 2010-11, 72 x 18 inches | Mixed media on linen

JS: Can you tell me something about the role of Asian art and aesthetics in your waterfalls?

JG: In China and Japan, optically accurate depiction was rarely a goal, and subjects were rendered as a fusion of both impression and conception. One day, in 2005, while looking at a 19th-century Japanese Shijo school (Kyoto -based) scroll of a waterfall, it occurred to me that the waterfall was about the most ideally suited subject for the long and narrow format of a scroll. The waterfall, in fact, is so well served by the vertical, attenuated format of the paper scroll that it has an immediate advantage over most western interpretations. However, as an American artist, I was desirous of melding my appreciation of the sort of suggestion of detail that is associated with the plein-air oil sketch tradition with the Japanese sensitivity to geometry and refinement of form.

It is interesting that the great majority of European and American depictions of waterfalls incorporate falls as a part of a greater composition, almost always in a rectangular (landscape) format. It seemed to me that one of the things the Japanese in particular understood is that by emphasizing the geometry of the scroll format in the choice of subject, there was a kind of reinforcement of the subject's worthiness.


Joseph Goldyne, "Fall XIV," 2010-11, 72 x 18 inches | Mixed media on linen

JS: Am I correct that the waterfalls are all invented? Early on in the series, did you have any real world waterfalls in mind?

JG: Yes, all the waterfalls are imagined. I have of course seen a few falls in person, but I am ashamed to say that I have never seen the great falls, nothing truly awesome. I had thought of making a pilgrimage to experience some of them, but in the end there are several reasons I chose to work from my imagination. For decades, I looked at things as I drew them, and there was always this sense of the subject's demand to be drawn so that its form and detail were more or less obeyed. Yet, I always looked forward to drawing from my head: doodling if you will. When I doodled, I was free, though things tended to turn surrealistic; in other words, they turned tricky.

I actually love varieties of surrealism in the works of others, in the best of Bosch, Magritte, Miro, Ernst, Gorky and certain biomorphic fantasies by the California artist, John Altoon, but it wasn't my tendency of choice. What I came to sense is that there were three fundamental components of those particular paintings that resonated powerfully for me:

  • They had a striking and relatively simple geometry that attracted my eye from a distance.

  • They presented either a dramatic or more subtle contrast of color which also served to summon the eye from afar.

  • As I approached more closely, attracted by geometry and contrast, there was sufficient detail to hold my eye's attention. That is, things did not fall completely apart, but rather became more interesting--there was some exploring to do that was not possible from far away.


Joseph Goldyne, "Gentle Shoulder Falls," 11 x 7 inches | Mixed media on paper

JS: In depicting moving water, how have you adjusted your techniques and media?

JG: You would think that the grand moving spectacle of the waterfall is best treated in the movies, the great medium of the recent past. What a movie can do is to reproduce the motion in nature on a 24 frames per second. But in the visual arts, the movie is equivalent to opera; that is, it combines the visual with sound and acting. All these contributing arts have to be successful for the motion picture to be fully resolved. It cannot focus the mind in the same way as a planar depiction that distills rather than reproduces experience. My waterfalls suggest motion, but are more interested in the path that the motion has taken/is taking. In a way, my falls are depicting what one might consider the mind's wish for the course and setting of the falls.


Joseph Goldyne, "Plunge from the Light Shaft," 11 x 7 inches | Mixed media on paper

JS: Is there anything else that viewers should know about these works?

JG: Only that I prepare for the large 6 foot waterfalls by doing oil over ink 7" x 5" sketches on gessoed paper. I have done over 250 of these studies and I do them as exercises to prepare for the large paintings. I have never once transferred one of these small studies to a large format canvas, but they are my way of doing anything I like on a small scale. They are wanderings through the history of art, by turns Claudian, Turnerian, Asian or just my own take of the moment. I love doing chamber-sized works because they encourage a freedom of approach and become like a file of ideas.

Click here to view a video:

Saying Goodbye to Diebenkorn

The potter,

innocent of all

he makes,

how could he know

his bowl would hold

the moon?

- Peter Levitt

In the spring of 1988 Danny Shain, a young artist working for Cooke's Crating, was dispatched to the Santa Monica studio of Richard Diebenkorn. His job was to help the renowned painter pack up the contents of his studio in preparation for a move to Healdsburg, California. Shain, who remembers being a bit starstruck, did what he could to express to the older artist how much he appreciated his work.

"Diebenkorn was very pleasant," Shain recalls, "but I could tell that he was not thrilled about people telling him how great he was." Because Shain knew enough about Diebenkorn's work to understand that a move to another location work would undoubtedly influence the artist's direction, he also gently asked about the reason for the move. Diebenkorn replied that he had been in Santa Monica "as long as anybody should be."

As the job progressed, Diebenkorn generously offered Shain various items including an old stepladder. Diebenkorn was a bit puzzled when the young man asked if he could also take home some of the trays that he had used to mix oil paint. "They are just photo developing trays: you can get new ones." he told Shain. They are now treasured items: "...the poetic shadow of his work," Shain remarks, "a journal of sorts of the making of his Ocean Park paintings."


Richard Diebenkorn's mixing trays - Photo: Danny Shain

Looking back, Shain remembers thinking a sad thought during the job: "This may be the end of the Ocean Park Paintings." In fact, it was. In his Healdsburg studio Diebenkorn worked mostly on a smaller scale, and the change in location brought a change in imagery. The artist's productivity was also greatly reduced by health problems that plagued him prior to his death in March of 1993.

Naturally, when he heard about the exhibition "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series," which was on view at the Orange County Museum of Art between February 26th and May 27th, Shain made a point of visiting the show. "I went with my family," Shain says. "I loved it." He wasn't alone in his enthusiasm. Before it closed, more than 21,000 visitors came to view OCMA's presentation of more than 75 Ocean Park paintings, prints and drawings, the largest selection ever seen on view together.


A view of "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series," at the Orange County Museum of Art

Photo: Colin Young-Wolff

During the run of the exhibition it became clear just how many people have an intense devotion to Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park" paintings. Diebenkorn himself has become a cult figure, and the chance to see his "Ocean Parks" in Newport Beach, an hour south of where they were painted, was a kind of pilgrimage.

Diebenkorn aficionados came from across the U.S. and from as far away as Great Britain. OCMA intern Sarah Waldorf reports that a couple who came from Georgia saw the exhibition three days in a row: "They would arrive at 11AM sharp and leave right before closing. Every day they spent the whole day in the exhibition." Pulitzer prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee flew in from Boston and wrote that "To stand before these austere but drenchingly beautiful canvases is as close as art gets to the feeling of taking refuge on a cold day under a warm shower."

A New York couple who had dropped by MOMA in New York were told that the Diebenkorn they had hoped to see was on loan to OCMA; they immediately booked a flight west. The visitors desk at OCMA reports having often called taxis for people who came directly from the airport and then went straight back after getting their fill of Diebenkorn. Many people made multiple visits; I personally saw the show three times. Derek Allison, a northern Californian who regularly comes south for business, dropped in four times.

Painter Mark Dutcher, who saw the show three times, found the "Ocean Park Series" profoundly moving and compelling. "It was like a master's class in studio painting; a slowed down and deliberate painterliness sustained over twenty years. It brought me to my knees and was such a great reminder of what it means to be an artist and that being in the studio is all that matters."

Curator Sarah Bancroft, the show's organizer, had the privilege of seeing the show daily: "It was a daily meditation that just kept giving," Bancroft reports. "I did my hardest looking the day before the show closed." Bancroft, who had worked hard at hanging and arranging Diebenkorn's works, had her own personal names for some of the spaces, one of which she dubbed "The Diebenkorn Chapel."

"What I casually referred to as the Diebenkorn Chapel was the space listed in the gallery guide as Gallery Seven. I called it the "chapel" because the works (c.1979-1980) that I hung there were very sumptuous, subtle, pastel, and it had a very quiet, light-infused, lovely feel. Three of the four paintings in particular (OP #109, OP #116, OP #122) did not have high contrast, and they really just took off and sang together. That room was like the "apotheosis of Ocean Park;" like being in heaven or going to heaven with Ocean Park."

The meditative feeling inspired by Diebenkorn's works was intense. "People are crazy about their Diebenkorn," reports Bancroft, "and prefer it in silence." The Diebenkorn fanatics who "shushed" Sarah Bancroft -- twice -- while she gave a private tour near the end of the show, made that clear to her. Poet Peter Levitt, who contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog, used standing meditations in front of various paintings to facilitate a writing workshop. As Levitt reports, the results were powerful; even cathartic:

"All I did with the docents who came to the workshop was offer ways for them not to think the paintings as they were in their presence. I gave them ways to see them not with their eyes, but with other portals through which vivid life is known when we turn aside from thinking/seeing and allow the bigness of what we are to engage what is right before us. The result was completely spontaneous and authentic writing, some of which took my breath away, or drove it more deeply in to where I could feel it, myself, alive. I wasn't the only one who felt this way listening - there were many signs that the writing was getting through, and not a few tears of joy, recognition and relief."

The day before the exhibition closed, Sarah Bancroft came across a man named Chris who was practicing Ki Gong in an opportune corner. "He looked like he was trying to commit the room to memory; he said he was meditating on all the works in Gallery Three plus the sight lines from Galleries Two and Four." His placement, comments Bancroft, was "perfect."

As soon as the show ended -- after extended hours had been declared to accommodate the final crowds -- OCMA's handlers began the melancholy task of preparing the Ocean Park paintings for their trip to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Each painting was carefully packed in a custom crate, ready to be accompanied by courier to its next destination.


A Diebenkorn "Ocean Park" is crated after the closing of the OCMA exhibition

It may be decades before another major Diebenkorn show comes along, and there is always the chance that "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series" will be the largest show ever organized. Collectors and institutions cherish their Diebenkorns, and after the Corcoran viewing the Ocean Parks will all be returned to their permanent homes in museums and private collections. "Ocean Park #90," which was on view only at Newport, is already back in billionaire Eli Broad's bedroom.

Saying "goodbye" to Diebenkorn's paintings won't be easy for his fans, but while they were at OCMA many, many people took the time to look them over carefully, and felt their pull. After viewing the exhibition five times in 24 hours Peter Levitt told his wife "I don't want to live anywhere where I'm not surrounded by these paintings." Many viewers were struck by how "right" it felt to see the works in Newport. "It was akin to seeing a Cezanne exhibition in the south of France," remarks Danny Shain. For Shain, and for so many people who love Diebenkorn's work, the connection is personal and deeply felt.

It is the same way for me. I was invited to Diebenkorn's home in 1978, and a momento of the visit hangs in my office to this day. Diebenkorn was, and still is, someone I look up to. In my mind's eye I can still see him closing the front gate as I left, with his dog barking behind him. It was hard to say goodbye then too.