Fritz Scholder continues to stir, stretch boundaries of Indian art

Posted on November 4th, 2009 by americanindiannews in Online Exhibitions

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian recently held a major artist’s retrospective, “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian.”


Fritz Scholder with buffalo head, Taos, New Mexico, 1977. Photo courtesy of Meridel Rubenstein

An abstract expressionist, Scholder died in 2005 at the age of 67. He was one-quarter Luiseño from Southern California, though he was born in Minnesota, where his father worked as an administrator in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. As a young man in the 1960s, Scholder taught art and art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. In a few years his art would take off, making him one of the most successful Native artists of his generation.

“‘The Indians’ were a small part of my career, a series that seemed logical at the time,” Scholder said in 1981. “But an artist has to transcend a subject, or he loses his battle. The subject wins.”

Still, it was his “Indian” series, in which he fused historic imagery with expressionism, that imploded conventions of what was and wasn’t Indian art.

“To me he was an inspiration because he was a serious artist while also being a successful artist,” said National Museum of the American Indian Curator for Contemporary Native Art Truman Lowe, Ho-Chunk.

Lowe, who co-curated the retrospective with National Museum of the American Indian Associate Curator Paul Chaat Smith, Comanche, is a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At 64, Lowe is also a prominent sculptor, whose “Bird Effigy,” in aluminum, was displayed in the White House’s Twentieth Century American Sculpture Exhibit in 1998. In 1999 he was among the first to receive the Eiteljorg Fellowship For Native American Fine Art. Lowe’s work was also the subject of the book, “Woodland Reflections: The Art of Truman Lowe,” by Jo Ortel and Lucy R. Lippard, published in 2004.

In an interview with American Indian News Service Editor Kara Briggs, Lowe explained why Scholder matters to Native American communities today.

Briggs: This is the first major retrospective since Fritz Scholder’s death in 2005. But NMAI had been in touch with Scholder, who lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., about including his work in exhibits since before the museum on the National Mall opened.

Lowe: Our intention was to initially accomplish it while he was alive. As things turned out, we knew that really honoring Fritz Scholder was what we needed to do. In the early 2000s, I took it upon myself to call him. We talked through the concept of the exhibition which became “who stole the teepee?” It paired historic pieces with contemporary Native artists’ works. The next day he called back and said, “Yes, I will participate.” That was our last conversation; he passed away a couple of years later.

Briggs: Scholder was a tremendously creative and prolific artist, who made art in every media he tried. He is known for being provocative, even political, in his grappling with Indian identity, whether in art or in his own personal identity.

Lowe: He was enrolled Luiseño, a California Mission Indian, but his statements about not being Indian are really a paradox. His work was a new interpretation of what Indian art could be. Up to that time, the rubric of Indian art in painting was very restrictive. The subject had to be a ceremonial subject, or even an anthropologic depiction. The kind of work Scholder was doing really broke all the boundaries of what was then considered Indian art.

Briggs: Scholder grew up with his half-Luiseño father and his white mother. Even though he lived close to the Indian schools where his father worked, Scholder was sent to local public schools.

Lowe: I think that’s an indication of why he felt comfortable saying, “I’m not Indian. I didn’t grow up in boarding school.” It gave him a freedom as an artist to continue to work in whatever manner he chose. Another part of the paradox is his most famous statement, “I am never going to paint Indians.” But he ended up doing that.

Briggs: One of Scholder’s most famous paintings, “Indian with Beer Can” is also among his most controversial. When it was painted in 1969, it was perceived by Indians as washing dirty laundry in public.

Lowe: Indians hated the painting because of the issue it raised. But alcoholism is everyone’s problem and it still is. The alcoholic is also a stereotype of how others perceive Indian people. It was a stereotype that Scholder confronted in the Southwest in the 1960s, where he was bombarded by various influences. These include the cultural revolution going on around him, the work of other contemporary artists and the deep experience of tribal people, who were his students at the Institute of American Indian Arts, (IAIA).

Briggs: Many famous Scholder paintings seem to have been inspired by photos of Indian leaders or even chiefs. Some are wrapped in flags. These images are iconic to non-Indians and Indians, too. Do they express resignation or survival?

Lowe: When you see them interpreted by a contemporary artist, it raises not only a feeling but an artist’s interpretation. What that is, is up to the viewer to interpret. There are historic pictures that would have been available to Scholder at IAIA, and some of them are of Indian people who, when given flags, wrapped them around themselves. The American Indian Movement was part of the cultural revolution at this time when Scholder was painting. They took the flag as one of their symbols. Fritz, he didn’t agree with AIM.

Briggs: He didn’t agree with the radicalism of AIM, which is part of Scholder’s paradox, given that he was radical in the 1960s conceptions of Indian art. Is there a Scholder painting that influences you as an artist or a curator?

Lowe: “Four Indian Riders” is emblematic of the whole exhibition. The four riders are obviously drawn from a historic photo, and they all look off in different directions. It conveys the way most of us go. We carry histories with us, but we aren’t limited to any one particular direction.

Briggs: What can Native artists today take from Scholder’s legacy?

Lowe: They can embrace all the artistic media open to them. Historically, we talked about beads as a trade item, but for many generations beads stopped being a trade item and became instead a method of expression for Indian artists. I equate beadwork with pixels. All those computer images we are bombarded with daily are made up of pixels, which are little squares, which actually could be considered little beads. These beads are totally integrated into the palette of the young contemporary Native artist.

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