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
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.
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
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.