Fritz Scholder (19372005) once claimed he would never paint Indians as his subject. There’s been a lot of controversy regarding his statement, particularly because it turned out to be incorrect. Not only did Scholder — who also claimed he was not Indian, despite being one-quarter Luiseño — paint Native Americans, but he did so prolifically, through two decades. He also did so in a way that was more honest than other regional artists, whose depictions of Native peoples were often largely misinformed and based on ideas of the Indian as a noble savage or as the representative of a bygone world.
Scholder’s paintings are often characterized by art historians and curators as paradoxical. He may have changed his mind about painting Native peoples, but what makes his work extra contradictory is that he painted not just Indians but super Indians: portraits that were massive in size and that often depicted indigenous people amidst markers of society at large. More than 40 such works are on exhibit in Super Indian:
Fritz Scholder: 1967-1980, coming to the Phoenix Art Museum on Feb. 27. The paintings are full of contradictions. For instance, Super Indian No. 2, the cover image on the accompanying catalog, shows a Santo Domingo Pueblo buffalo dancer in full dress, an ice-cream cone in his hand. Some may find the image funny, with its incongruous sight of a “traditional” Indian holding a sweet, frosty icon of the modern world. In her catalog essay “Painter, Traveler, Diplomat,” indigenous art scholar Jessica Horton writes, “What better pursuit for a burgeoning artist in the era of Pop than the big business of picturing Indians? Yet Scholder pointedly took up the subject in resistance to what he called a horde of ‘ ugly tourists’ trampling the region in search of a romantic Indian cliché.” The buffalo dance is not some relic of the past but continues at Santo Domingo today. So a dancer takes a break, enjoys an ice-cream cone. Big deal. “Tourists love Native dances, cold treats, and the reprieve of an air-conditioned hotel,” Horton continues. “But the brochures promise a spectacle of pure difference, implying that ice cream should remain outside the frame.”
Horton’s essay also points to an important and littledi s cussed a s pect of t he artist’s l i fe: his extensive travels abroad and his wideranging interests, which, in addition to super Indians, provided him with other subject matter. He was interested in occult practices, ritual, and ceremony; he was fascinated by Egyptology and art history and took the grand tour of Europe to acquaint himself with great works of human civilization. “And for the rest of his life he insisted on every artist’s freedom to depict Egyptian pyramids, Indians with umbrellas, and any subject that compels the imagination,” Horton writes.
Scholder’s claim that he wasn’t an Indian artist is another seemingly confounding statement that makes perfect sense in context, since even now, Native artists rarely escape the label. Yes, he was a Native artist, but he attempted to distance himself from the designation, and embraced aesthetics which had more in common with Pop art than the formal Native painting styles promoted by Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School. Dunn, an art instructor, founded the Studio School on the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School and promoted flat, narrative painting styles on the themes of Native culture. Scholder drew on art history
in conceiving his works, and even if he didn’t adopt older painting styles, his art had correspondences with them in terms of imagery. You can see this if you compare, as Horton points out, his Indians With
Umbrellas, a lithograph from 1971 depicting Plains Indians on horseback holding umbrellas, with a 19thcentury ledger drawing by Lakota artist Red Hawk that also shows two Natives wielding umbrellas, one on horseback. Scholder’s Seated Indian With Rif le
(After Remington) from 1976 places the figure of a Native, sitting cross-legged, a rifle across his lap, in a setting devoid of context, surrounded by the non-threatening color pink. It’s a deconstruction of the type of romantic images of the west that Frederic Remington (1861-1909) made famous.
Scholder also took on art and artists closer to home. His Indian in Taos Pueblo from 1970 is a re-envisioning of Gerald Cassidy’s (1869-1934) Cui Bono from circa 1911, among the New Mexico Museum of Art’s most recognizable works of art. Only in Scholder’s take, the shrouded human figure’s face is entirely obliterated. Darkness lies behind the human form, from which an amorphous shape emerges like something from Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
In his catalog essay for Super Indian, artist Brad Kahlhamer discusses Scholder’s Indian portraits with respect to the context in which many of them were painted: the era of Vietnam, civil rights protests, and also psychedelia, pop music, and rock ’n’ roll. The seated figure in Mad Indian from 1968 appears as though he’s crouching, engaged in a kind of crazy dance. “Mad
Indian seems painted to a jukebox sound fed by theremin drip — a rare, dreamy, vinyl blend worthy of repeat listens,” Kahlhamer writes. When Scholder was teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in the ’60s, the students organized war protests and tackled the political and social issues of their day in their work, but not everyone sought to get away from the “Indian” label. Many at IAIA embraced the Indian designation and inevitably brought it into their art. It was a part of him, too, and as he began living and working in Santa Fe, with its visible Native culture, he found he was increasingly drawn to the allure of the Native subject. To what extent his students influenced the direction of his own work is difficult to gauge, but there are similarities, particularly between Scholder and T.C. Cannon, who embraced overlapping aesthetics. “But as Scholder himself gained notoriety,” writes artist and activist David Bradley in his essay “Scholder in the Southwest,” “a few former students resented that he never acknowledged their inf luence on his style and the extent to which he may have ‘borrowed’ from their work.”
The intent behind Scholder’s Indian series was to challenge the false perceptions of Native Americans in American culture, whether it was Hollywood stereotypes or artistic ones. Matinee Cowboy
and Indian from 1978 shows two antiquated figures, one Native, one white, like Tonto and the Lone Ranger, shaking hands, a stream of golden yellow light between them. But the subject is drawn from cinema, as if to say, “This is not the real world.” Scholder calls attention to images that no longer speak to a contemporary society. “It’s difficult to overcome established styles and subjects — to use new approaches to advance the work and our understanding of it,” writes artist Theodore Waddell in his catalog essay “A Grand Balance.” “Scholder did this, big time. He not only challenged assumptions but moved the needle of understanding.”
“Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967-1980” is at the Phoenix Art Museum from Feb. 27 to June 5, 1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Arizona, 602-257-1222.