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Artist Fritz Scholder Changed the Way American Indians Are Portrayed


He never considered himself an American Indian artist, but others did. In fact, Fritz Scholder [1937-2005] was the most influential figure in the history of American Indian art. The National Museum of the American Indian has assembled a retrospective of the artist's work that includes two exhibits -- one in New York focusing on Scholder's later works, and one in Washington spanning his career.

More than 130 of Scholder's paintings, sculptures and prints have been assembled for Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian. The title refers to how the artist - who was one-quarter Luiseno (a California mission tribe) - saw himself.

"He always was specific in how he characterized himself," says curator Paul Chaat Smith. "That he was, yes, part Indian, but also part French, English and German. He saw himself mainly as an artist."

The earliest works in the show are abstract paintings, dating from the late 1950s, when Scholder studied art in California with Wayne Thiebaud. He went on to earn a master of fine arts from the University of Arizona, and in 1964, shortly after the Institute of American Indian Arts opened its doors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was invited to join the faculty. He taught there for five years.

A vow made and broken

Athough it became his signature subject, Scholder had no intentions of painting Indians. In fact he vowed shortly after his arrival in Santa Fe, that he never would.

"He looked around and saw how much of the political economy of New Mexico and Arizona was based on tourism and images of American Indians," Smith says. "He felt that there was a degree of exploitation in that. He didn't want to be a party to it."

But Scholder changed his mind when he realized the images of Indians that were being done were idealized stereotypes. No one was portraying Indians as they were in the 1960s.

His decision to do so was controversial. "To show Indians in the 20th century, to show Indians in a car, to show an Indian drinking a can of beer," says Smith, "all of that was subject matter that was off limits until Scholder and his colleagues (at the Institute of American Indian Arts) began to change how Indians were represented."

His style also caused a stir. Scholder used bold, pop-art colors like orange, hot pink, purple and lime green, and expressionistic brush strokes. "He painted Indians with green faces. He painted Indians distorted. It may seem tame now, but at the time that was really startling," Smith says.

Welcoming controversy

Scholder welcomed the response his art provoked. "I'm interested in someone reacting to the work and I don't much care if they react negatively or positively, as long as they react," Scholder said in a 1975 documentary about his work.

He was proud that one art dealer said "Scholder has single-handedly destroyed Indian painting," taking the comment as a compliment.

Art dealers eventually warmed to his work, and he became quite popular with collectors.

But his decision to show modern Indians grappling with personal demons - a drunken Indian staggering down a sidewalk for example - was not widely embraced.

"Most Indians at the time hated it at first, and many still do," says curator Paul Chaat Smith, who adds his own mother "still hates Scholder's work and wouldn't come to the show except that I was curating it."

In 1980, Scholder proclaimed he would paint no more Indians. He explored other themes, including embracing couples and mythic figures. But he did occasionally return to his signature subject.

Curator Paul Chaat Smith says Scholder is still controversial today, three years after his death. It is often the most controversial artists who have had the greatest impact. Fritz Scholder is no excepion: he is widely regarded as the artist who changed forever the way American Indians are portrayed.

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