Fritz Scholder

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"Red Man" by Native American Artist Fritz Scholder. Pickens Museum Director Hugh Pickens on right.

Although Scholder did not consider himself an Indian, he was regarded as a leader of the New American Indian Art Movement. From 1964 to 1969 he taught painting and art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From the beginning, he struggled to represent the landscape and people of the Southwest without indulging in the romantic clichés of genre art on the Native themes. In time he created an extraordinary fusion of abstract expressionism, surrealism and Pop art to express his unique vision of the Southwestern scene and the Native experience.

In his work, Scholder frequently showed the harsh, realistic side of Indians' lives and deaths, including the affects of alcohol, but some of his depictions are humorous such as Indians on horseback carrying umbrellas. His brushwork is generally swift, and the tone often somber and surreal. A major influence on his work was the contemporary British artist, Francis Bacon, from whom Scholder adapted ironic distortions into his canvases.


Born in 1937 in Breckenridge, Minnesota, Fritz Scholder knew what he must do at an early age. As a high school student at Pierre, South Dakota, his teacher was Oscar Howe, a noted Sioux artist. In the summer of 1955, Scholder attended the Mid-West Art and Music Camp at the University of Kansas. He was voted Best Boy Artist and President of the Art Camp. He studied with Robert B. Green at Lawrence. In 1956, Scholder graduated from Ashland High School in Wisconsin and took his freshman year at Wisconsin State University in Superior, where he studied with Arthur Kruk, James Grittner and Michael Gorski. In 1957, Scholder moved with his family to Sacramento, California where he studied with Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud invited Scholder to join him, along with Greg Kondos and Peter Vandenberg in creating a cooperative gallery in Sacramento. Scholder’s first show received an exceptional review. Scholder’s next one man exhibition was at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. His work was being shown throughout the region, including the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Upon graduation, from Sacramento State University, where he studied with Tarmo Pasto and Raymond Witt, Scholder was invited to participate in the Rockefeller Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona in 1961.

Scholder is one-quarter Luseino, a California Mission tribe. He met Cherokee designer, Lloyd Kiva New and studied with Hopi jeweler, Charles Loloma. After receiving a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, Scholder moved to Tucson and became a graduate assistant in the Fine Arts Department where he studied with Andrew Rush and Charles Littler. There, he met artists Max Cole, John Heric and Bruce McGrew. After graduating with an MFA Degree in 1964, Scholder accepted the position of instructor in Advanced Painting and Contemporary Art History at the newly formed Institute of American Indians Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Scholder has always worked in series of paintings. In 1967, his new series on the Native American, depicting the "real Indian," became an immediate controversy. Scholder was the first to paint Indians with American Flags, beer cans, and cats. His target was the loaded national cliché and guilt of the dominant culture. Scholder did not grow up as an Indian and his unique perspective could not be denied. Scholder resigned from I.A.I.A. in 1969 and traveled to Europe and North Africa. He returned to Santa Fe and acquired a small adobe house and studio on Canyon Road.

In 1970, Tamarind Institute moved from Los Angeles to Albuquerque. Scholder was invited by Tamarind to do the first major project, a suite of lithographs, INDIANS FOREVER. It was the beginning of a large body of work in that medium for the artist. SCHOLDER / INDIANS was published by Northland Press, the first book on Scholder’s work. In the same year, Scholder had his first one-man show at the Lee Nordness Galleries.

He had become a major influence for a generation of native American artists. He was invited to lecture at numerous art conferences and universities including Princeton and Dartmouth College. In 1972 an exhibition of the DARTMOUTH PORTRAITS, opened at Cordier and Ekstrom in New York to favorable reviews. In the same year, Adelyn D. Breeskin of the America Museum of Art of the Smithsonian Institution, visited Scholder and suggested a two-person show of the work of Scholder and one of his former students. Scholder chose T.C. Cannon. The show opened in Washington D.C. to good reviews and traveled to Romania, Yugoslavia, Berlin and London. Scholder was invited to have a one man show at the Basil V International Art Fair in Switzerland in 1974. After Basel, Scholder traveled to Egypt and painted the Sphinx and pyramids.

In 1975, Scholder did his first etchings at El Dorado Press in Berkeley, California. That same year a film documentary on his work was shown on PBS and a book of his lithographs was released by New York Graphic Society. Scholder discovered monotypes in 1977. His first exhibition of photographs was shown at the Heard Museum in 1978, documented by INDIAN KITSCH, a book published by Northland Press. A miniature book of Scholder’s poetry was produced by Stinehour Press in 1979. In 1980, Scholder was guest artist at the Oklahoma Art Institute, which resulted in a PBS film documentary, AMERICAN PORTRAIT. His second retrospective opened at the new Tucson Museum of Art in 1981. Scholder drew lithographs at Ediciones Poligrafa in Barcelona and was guest artist at ISOMATA, USC at Idyllwild, California and again at the Oklahoma Arts Institute.

In 1982, Scholder acquired a loft in Manhattan. A major monograph is published by Rizzoli International and Scholder returns to Egypt at the invitation of famed archeologist, Kent Weeks. Scholder is named life-time Societaire of the Salon d’Automne and exhibits at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1984. The following year, he is honored with the Golden Plate Award from the The American Academy of Achievement . In 1991, AFTERNOON NAP is published, the first in a series of book projects by Nazraeli Press, Munich. Scholder has five honorary degrees from Ripon College, University of Arizona, Concordia College, The College of Santa Fe and the first honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin, Superior. A humanitarian Award from the 14th Norsk Hostfest follows.

In 1994, Leonard Baskin invites Scholder to collaborate on a major book at Gehnenna Press in Massachusetts. Scholder returns to Arizona and establishes his private press, Apocrypha. He then retreats to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. The following year, two major shows open. THE PRIVATE WORK OF FRITZ SCHOLDER at the Phoenix Art museum and a year long exhibition: FRITZ SCHOLDER / ICONS & APPARITIONS at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in Arizona. Scholder begins the MILLENNIUM series and works in London, Paris and Budapest. He produced his first digital book, THOUGHTS AT NIGHT, in 2000. This year Scholder returned to Santa Fe to open an exhibition ALONE / NOT ALONE at Chiaroscuro Gallery. In October, 2001 a major exhibition of paintings and sculpture regarding death and skulls titled, LAST PORTRAITS, at the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota, opened in Duluth. In March 2002, Chiaroscuro Galleries in Scottsdale opened a major show titled ORCHIDS AND OTHER FLOWERS, Scholder’s Reaction to 9/11. Scholder is the 2002 Arizona Governor’s Award recipient.

How Native American Artist Fritz Scholder Forever Changed the Art World

Native American Artist Fritz Scholder.

An exhibit in Denver looks at why we should all be grateful that Scholder broke his word

By Jordan Steffen

DECEMBER 29, 2015

In the winter of 1967, artist Fritz Scholder broke a promise.

Working as a teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Scholder was already a Native American artist of some renown. His work up to that point had come along with a vow — he would never paint a Native American figure. He believed the subject had devolved into a romantic cliché.

But standing before his students one day, he grew frustrated with their inability to create an “honest” representation of current American Indians. So he carried his brushes and paints into the studio classroom and quickly filled the canvas with the figure he pledged to avoid. The same subject that would eventually define his works.

Scholder’s decision to break his promise marked a fierce turning point for campaign on behalf of Native American rights and for American Indian artists.

His painting, Indian No. 1, and the works that followed thrust contemporary styles into a genre dominated by what Scholder characterized as “flat” and, at times, disingenuous depictions of Native Americans. His paintings disrupted comfort zones — even for Native Americans — by rawly exposing issues including alcoholism, unemployment and cultural clashes.

But for Scholder, who was one-quarter Native American, the choice to paint the charged subject matter was — as in any of his paintings — second to his love of color and focus on composition. Scholder did not fully embrace his Native American heritage. He was, at his core, a painter.

Still, decades after he completed his Indian Series, people struggle to look beyond the subjects in Scholder’s paintings.

An exhibition of Scholder’s work at the Denver Art Museum is designed to help visitors see more.

“Super Indian,” an exhibition featuring 40 of Scholder’s rarely seen paintings and lithographs, is one of the first to explore how Scholder used a mix of figurative and pop influences to create challenging and colorful images. In short, the exhibition is designed to re-connect viewers with the artist, instead of the political or protest painter Scholder claimed he never was.

“Scholder came in with a technique and applied it to whatever subject matter he happened to be working on, whether that was abstract landscapes, whether that was butterflies, whether that was Indians or women or dogs,” said John Lukavic, associate curator of Native arts at the museum. “He wasn’t starting with the subject matter, he was finishing with the subject matter.”

Super Indian No. 2, 1971. (Promised gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the Collection of the Denver Art Museum / © Estate of Fritz Scholder)

Scholder’s grandmother was a member of the Luiseño tribe of Mission Indians. Born in 1937, Scholder spent his childhood traveling with his father, who was assigned different posts as a school administrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Still, Scholder did not consider himself an Indian. He was not drawn to the subject matter when he entered Sacramento State University to earn his art degree. By the time Scholder entered the world of Native American art in 1961, his style and love of color had been heavily influenced by abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and other painters such as Francis Bacon.

When he accepted a teaching position at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1964, he vowed never to paint a Native American and to instill his love of color and composition in his students.

He only broke one of those promises.

Even after painting Indian No. 1 in 1967, Scholder continued to consider color first when painting an image. All of his paintings were first and foremost “an experiment in color,” Lukavic said.

Some of Scholder’s Indian paintings featured in the Denver exhibit capture how his love of color helped transform Native American art. Solitary figures, which before were painted in dramatic Plains scenes, were placed on bright, solid color fields — blue native figures appeared on bright pink backgrounds.

In an archival interview excerpted in the exhibition’s catalog, Scholder described his love of color:

“One color by itself is pretty blah. I don’t care what color you take. It’s when you put the second color next to the first color that, then things start to happen, and you get vibrations, you get, when you get purple next to an orange, things are going to happen.”

One of Lukavic’s goals in designing the exhibition was to give the large paintings room to breathe, to give viewers an opportunity to experience the sensations Scholder described by seeing the colors side-by-side, and to experience the hues up close. Purples, reds, yellows and blacks all appear in a closer examination of just one of the artist’s brush strokes.

But no matter the colors Scholder selected, the majority of his figures in the Indian Series were politically charged. The American Indian Movement of the 1970s mirrored the growing tensions in the Civil Rights Movement. Activists pushed for Indian sovereignty and addressed issues of racism and federal policies that discriminated against Native populations. Scholder never publicly aligned himself with the Movement, but a number of his paintings dripped with politics and activism.

One of the most iconic paintings in the Denver exhibition — Super Indian No. 2 -- is one of Scholder’s more controversial works. The image shows a Native American dancer wearing a ceremonial buffalo headdress. But the dancer is slumped over his knees, appearing exhausted, holding a strawberry ice cream cone.

The image of a man exhausted after performing a ceremonial dance for tourists was a clear challenge to the well-known romantic images of Native Americans. Super Indian No. 2, painted in 1971, and paintings that followed were an effort by Scholder to show Native Americans not only in a contemporary style, but in a way that captured their lives in modern society.

In 1973, Scholder told the Chicago Tribune: “People don’t really like Indians. Oh, they like their own conceptions of the Indian — usually the Plains Indian, romantic and noble and handsome and somehow the embodiment of wisdom and patience. But Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system, living in uncomfortable surroundings. We have really been viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society.”

Hopi Dancers, first state, 1974. (Denver Art Museum: Bequest of the estate of Suzanne W. Joshel, 2009.480 / © Estate of Fritz Scholder.) The image of the dancer, painted after Scholder watched a similar scene unfold at a Pueblo ceremony near Santa Fe, drew ire from Native and non-Native peoples, Lukavic said. Scholder’s abstract figures of Native Americans in modern settings, such as at a bar or drunk on the street, repeatedly drew the question: “Why do you paint Indians so ugly?”

Scholder, however, seldom carried those criticisms with him. Whether people loved or hated his paintings he didn’t care, so long as they experienced some kind of reaction, Lukavic said.

Some of Scholder’s most challenging and provoking paintings came from his darker palettes and are featured in the exhibition.

Subjects in the paintings were inspired by events such as the American Indian Movement’s 1972 occupation of Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the deadly standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the next year. The Still, the subjects remained an accessory to the colors and composition Scholder used in the paintings.

But even Scholder’s most morbid paintings carried something many other painters of his era and style did not: Hope.

“Native people persevere,” Lukavic said. “Even though native people were subjected to this kind of treatment in the past, they’re still here, they still have strong communities. This is saying this is what native people went through -- which influenced how people live their lives today — but they are living their lives today.”

In 1980, Scholder painted the last painting in his Indian Series. He would later explain that he “had finished what I had to say about Indians.”

Before his death in 2005, Scholder brought his love of color and figurative style to other subjects — none were considered as successful as his Indian paintings. Whether it was the use of color or the charged subject matter that drew so many to his work, almost anyone who views them was grateful he broke his promise.

Indian Or Not? Fritz Scholder's Art And Identity

December 24, 20084:07 PM ET Heard on All Things Considered JOSHUA BROCKMAN

Fritz Scholder broke almost every rule there was for an American Indian artist. He combined pop art with abstract expressionism. He shunned the sentimental portrayal of traditional Indians and in so doing helped pave the way for artists who followed.

Scholder was only part American Indian, and when he created the work that put him on the art world map — his "Indian" series in the 1960s — he made a lot of people mad. The first painting had the word "Indian" stenciled on it, as if the image couldn't be identified without the label.

Now, Scholder is the subject of three exhibitions across the country. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian has organized two — one in New York and one in Washington, D.C. — both called "Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian." And in Santa Fe, N.M., where Scholder taught in the 1960s, the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum has organized an exhibition titled "Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look."

Painting Contemporary Reality

Another iconic image from Scholder's Indian series is Indian With Beer Can (1969).

"It's still haunting; it's still devastating seeing these white teeth, a distorted face to suggest a skull," says exhibition co-curator Paul Chaat Smith, who works at the National Museum of the American Indian. "You can't see the figure's eyes, they're behind sunglasses — incredibly arresting and powerful work even today, but back then it was extraordinary."

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The can of Coors in the foreground is a vivid example of how Scholder painted what he observed. And that included alcoholism in Indian Country.

"He's really talking about the condition of the American Indian that he saw," says "Indian/Not Indian" co-curator Truman Lowe, a contemporary-art specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian. "And it's not pretty."

But it's not always ugly. Standing in one of the galleries at the museum in Washington, Scholder's second wife, Romona Scholder, points to a well-known 1971 painting called Super Indian No. 2.

More On Scholder Learn More About The Exhibit 'Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian' Read Scholder's Obituary From 'The New York Times' Learn More About The Exhibit 'Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look' "We were at Santo Domingo Pueblo, and we had kind of left the crowd and walked around a corner, and here sat a buffalo dancer," she recalls.

Scholder went home to paint him. In the portrait, the dancer wears a horned headdress and beads around his neck. And in his hand — just as Scholder saw him — instead of the traditional rattle, there's an ice cream cone with two scoops.

"He went, 'Oh my God,'" says Romona Scholder, recalling her late husband's reaction to the incongruous sight. "And I think that that's why this painting is quintessentially Scholder — because he picked up [on] that Indian-as-mythical-being and Indian-as-ice-cream-cone-eater."

In the 1982 PBS documentary Fritz Scholder: An American Portrait, the artist discussed the origins of the "Indian" series.

"I succumbed to a subject that I vowed I would never paint: the American Indian," Scholder said. "The subject was loaded, but here I was in Santa Fe. It was hard not to be seduced by the Indian."

Origins Of A Colorist

Scholder was one-quarter Luiseno, but he said he grew up "non-Indian." Born in 1937 in Breckenridge, Minn., he spent his childhood in North Dakota and South Dakota. In Pierre, S.D., he studied with his first American Indian instructor, Oscar Howe. When he moved to California in the 1950s, he studied with the celebrated pop artist Wayne Thiebaud.

In the documentary, Scholder likened himself to the abstract expressionists: "The thing is to get the paint on the canvas. I don't care if you use your fingers, your rag, brushes, cardboard — it doesn't matter — it's getting that paint on the canvas. You get it on the canvas and you see what happens. It drips, it smears, it's thick or it's thin or you make washes. I consider myself a colorist. One color by itself isn't that interesting — it's the second color and a third color, and a dialogue starts and pretty soon you're swept up in it. You really don't know what's going to happen next."

Scholder shared his enthusiasm for painting with students at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. In 1964, he accepted a teaching position there and remained on the faculty through 1969. It was during this period that his career skyrocketed.

Even though he was shy, he didn't hesitate to put himself in the center of his canvasses. Romona Scholder points to some paintings from the Human in Nature, Monster Love and American Portrait series on display in the Washington exhibit.

"All of these paintings are self-portraits of some aspect of himself," she says. "He himself influenced the shape of the paintings, the shape of the people. He had some scoliosis in his back, and one shoulder was up a little higher than the other, and it shows up in all of his paintings."

Indeed, the right shoulder is more pronounced in a series from the 1980s, including the painting Portrait With White Suit (1983), where an asymmetrical figure is set against a lavender landscape.

Destination: New York City

It was in the 1980s that Scholder went to New York as part of his mission to make it, to become a star. Andy Warhol painted his portrait. He went to openings and was embraced by an art world intrigued by his otherness.

At the Smithsonian's galleries in lower Manhattan, the emphasis is on paintings and sculpture Scholder created from the 1980s until his death in 2005. The series on display here, including Mystery Woman, Possession and Shaman, aren't just about himself. They're also inspired by the esoteric objects he collected.

Living With His Possessions

Another Possession is a winged sculpture of a demon with a skull-like head; it was once perched at the edge of Scholder's pool at the adobe-walled compound, filled with palm trees and oleander, where he lived in Scottsdale, Ariz.

It echoes the Egyptian sarcophagus, the mummies and skulls that are part of the collection of artifacts that he lived with and used as props or springboards for his art.

"All of these things give you the impression of incompatibility," says Renaissance professor Bob Bjork, who was Scholder's friend and shared an interest in old books. "But what's amazing is that they meld into a perfect work of art — it's as if you're entering a painting. He had an amazing ability to juxtapose objects and make them work together in an incredible way."

Scholder also lived with thousands of books, some of which he created.

Bjork, the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University, remembers a poem about Sept. 11, 2001 from Scholder's illustrated From the Cave:

Fun left that morning. We witnessed the fall in real time. Birds were burning. Time to paint flowers. That year, Scholder's art took an even more personal turn. His widow, Lisa Markgraf Scholder, says he had been battling diabetes for years.

"This was a time of illness being taken very seriously and lots of blood work," she says. "And in between blood tests, Fritz would always connive his doctors into giving him extra vials so that he might take them home and experiment."

That led to Blood Skulls, a series of skull images on motel stationary fashioned using his own blood and Diet Coke.

Scholder's Afterlife

In his last self-portrait, crafted in 2003 and on display in New York, the artist sits in his studio, leaning on a cane with an oxygen tube in his nose. A large pool of blood encroaches from the foreground. A gray Egyptian cat stares up at him; in the center of the floor are a book and a photograph.

Scholder would likely smile at the questions his works still provoke today. His creations have an afterlife that curator Lowe says resonates with both Indians and non-Indians.

"He was an instrumental part of breaking down the stereotype of Indian painting and actually changing it," Lowe says, "so that, in a real sense, it's freeing up the succeeding generations of artists to work in whatever medium and in whatever subject matter and whatever direction they choose."

In 1975, Scholder did a series of etchings called Ten Indians. Each portrays a different member of a tribe dressed in regalia. The last one is a Luiseno. It's Scholder — in sunglasses and an ascot.

The Smithsonian exhibition poses the question: Indian or not Indian? Fritz Scholder remained both, right until the end.

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