Fritz Scholder Challenges Who’s Who in’Indian/Not Indian’
Dismissing traditional depictions of Native Americans as inaccurate, artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) vowed to never paint Indians. Then he changed his mind — and the entire genre of Native American art.
“Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian,” at the National Museum of the American Indian, chronicles Scholder’s colorful art and personality through more than 100 of his paintings, photographs and sculptures.
Eschewing the so-called studio style — a flat perspective that Indian artists said white art instructors invented to match public perceptions — that dominated Indian art between the 1930s and 1960s, Scholder had originally planned to paint only landscapes. But as a teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in the ’60s, he found inspiration in his students’ bold new interpretations of Native American culture and decided someone must paint the Indian differently.
And so he did. In 1967, Scholder painted “Indian No. 1,” an abstract form with green hair and a red face. It was so distinct from previous Native American art that Scholder stenciled “Indian” in light and hot pinks at the top so people would know what the image was.
“Scholder is the artist who changed the course of Native art history,” said Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator at the museum. “You can really talk about a before and after of Native art history. He’s the one that brought in sort of contemporary art sensibilities of the ’60s and ’70s. There’s elements of pop art, abstract expressionism, there’s influences from people like Francis Bacon, and none of that really existed in the field of Native art before.”
Scholder’s style was not the only unconventional aspect of his art. He showed Indians in nontraditional scenes, such as in a car (rather than on a horse) or drinking alcohol. “Indian with Beer Can,” on display publicly for the first time in 20 years, depicts a man wearing a black cowboy hat and sunglasses sitting at a bar with a can of beer, his mouth open, baring pointy teeth. The unflattering 1969 painting “shocked both the Native American and mainstream art worlds when first exhibited nearly 40 years ago,” a press release states.
Scholder became known for exploring issues of alcoholism and poverty, delving into the uglier side of Native American life when most turned a blind eye to the problems. He also used pop art and other unconventional methods to shatter long-held Indian clichés and the romantic image held by many Americans.
Yet Scholder also portrayed the Indians’ pain in unflinching pieces such as “Dying Indian,” the lower third of which is black, while a cloudless sky blue dominates the upper part. A skeletal form horizontally bridges the two spaces and seems to struggle against the inevitable plunge into darkness even as it melts into the black. The equally somber “Massacre at Wounded Knee” evokes sympathy for the dead Indians instead of patriotism for their victorious conquerors.
Scholder tended toward abstract faces save in his annual self-portraits, some of which feature detailed eyes and facial lines, but for the most part he felt that what it meant to be Native American was still undefined. (He painted a question mark above the figure on a horse in “Indian No. 16” to supposedly stir uncertainties about identity.) The Minnesota-born artist whose mother was white and father was half Luiseño, a California mission tribe, grew up in the Northern Plains while his father worked as a Bureau of Indian Affairs administrator, though Scholder didn’t have an “Indian” upbringing.
“Although one-quarter Luiseño, Scholder always insisted he was not American Indian any more than he was German or French, yet he became the most successful and highly regarded painter of Native Americans in U.S. history — a fact that raises the question of what ‘Indian art’ actually is,” said Truman Lowe, curator of contemporary art at the George Gustav Heye Center in Lower Manhattan, which is presenting a concurrent exhibition focusing on Scholder’s New York work starting in 1980.
That’s when Scholder declared his “Indian” series done and moved to New York City to focus more on mythology and spiritualism, creating androgynous figures with wings and embracing couples. In the 1990s, a decade before he died in 2005, he returned to painting Indians, but his work from that period also shows the aging artist’s preoccupation with death. Using a mixture of Diet Coke and his own blood, for instance, Scholder made a series of skulls on hotel stationery titled “Wolf at the Door,” which incorporates dark colors to set off the light form of the animal’s back as it sits waiting.
In the end, Scholder was as controversial as his work, with a dichotomy not unlike the figures he depicted. In the accompanying book “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian,” he is described as “the public intellectual who gave speeches about the New Indian Art Movement, who also said he didn’t believe in making statements. The reclusive who starred in nationally televised documentaries and willingly painted before audiences all over the world. And, above all, this one: the man who revolutionized Indian painting, who also consistently, insistently, told everyone who would listen for over five decades that he was not Indian. Except that he was proud of being one-quarter Luiseño.”
Exhibit co-curator Smith, himself a Comanche, said his favorite Scholder painting is “Super Indian,” which shows an Indian dancer dressed in traditional garb holding a cone with two scoops of pink ice cream — a whimsical, sharp contrast to the savage-looking man.
“This is very startling for the time because you should show just a very serious pueblo dancer painting,” Smith said, “but to mix the two and say that we actually had ceremonial dances and also liked ice cream cones, it may be hard to believe now, but in the 1970s, that was kind of a startling idea.”
“Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian through Aug. 16 National Museum of the American Indian Fourth Street and Independence Avenue, SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.americanindian.si.edu.
About the Author
Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.