Drawing from three prominent collections of Fritz Scholder’s paintings, Lew Allen Galleries presents Figures of Paradox. The show, on view through July 23, spotlights the major themes that preoccupied Scholder, including the contradictory view he had of himself as a so-called “Indian artist,” a label he tried unsuccessfully to get away from. Many of the pieces in the show remained in Scholder’s possession until his death in 2005, and have only been exhibited posthumously. He applied an expressive but controlled method to his canvases, and his interest in the human figure had more to do with shape and form than with outright representation. On the cover is Scholder’s 1996 painting Academy Portrait, acrylic and oil on canvas.
The 21st century has been kind to Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), with a major retrospective of his works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2008 and a traveling show organized by the Denver Art Museum in 2015. He was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2009, and one of his sculptures even turned up in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film The show at the National Museum of the American Indian was called referencing the uneasy relationship that Scholder, who was onequarter Luiseño, had to the term. “He tried in his lifetime to shed the association,” said Romona Scholder, the artist’s second wife. “By painting the series he locked himself into belonging to a certain genre and to a certain group of people. To break out of that — he felt he never did. He always wanted to be a Bruce Naumann or a Susan Rothenberg.” Selections from Romona Scholder’s private collection of the artist’s works, along with pieces from the collection of the Fritz Scholder Estate and the Fritz and Lisa Scholder Collection (belonging to his third wife), are on view in the exhibit at LewAllen Galleries. Outside of major retrospectives, the artwork at LewAllen, which includes large-scale paintings, prints, and sculpture, has rarely been seen or exhibited.
A fair number of self-portraits by Scholder suggest that the biggest contradiction was in how he saw himself. For better or for worse, the label “Indian artist” is still associated with him. But Scholder didn’t just paint Indians. In fact, he mostly didn’t, except during two periods. Influenced by Native students at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he taught early in the school’s history, he took on the subject of Native peoples in a truthful way. Many of his works were simply portraits of regular people from photographs he took as he encountered them, and they challenged stereotypical views of Native peoples and outmoded, idealized depictions in art, presenting a contemporary perspective. But that view, too, was full of conundrums. Sometimes, as in the 1990 painting which is in the LewAllen exhibit, he depicts aspects of Native traditions such as dances or people in ceremonial dress. But Scholder placed his subjects in the now. His subjects were likely to sport some emblem of contemporary society that could seem incongruous with more traditional Native aspects of the portrait, such as a headdress or a feather held in the hand. In these juxtapositions, Scholder demystified his subjects and made them real. There isn’t anything special-seeming about the man in his
from 1974, but in a sense, his normalcy is what makes it a singular portrait. “It was from something called the series,” Romona Scholder said of the painting from her collection. “He was down in Gallup and he photographed all kinds of people and then did the paintings from that.”
In terms of his painting style, he made figurative works that tend toward abstraction, and adapted a flat Pop aesthetic in his lithographs and aquatints, a number of which are included in Among them are and
both from 1978. The aquatint etchings were made when Scholder was visiting Rome. He traveled extensively, studying the occult and Egyptology as well as art history. After about 1980, he abandoned Native subjects and wouldn’t return to them for a decade. The show includes 1980’s among the last of his Native paintings to be exhibited when he was being represented by Elaine Horwitch. In the 1990s, however, Scholder took up Indian subjects again. “He said he had more to say,” Romona Scholder said.
The paintings in Figures of Paradox are enigmatic. from 1984 and Alone #2 from 2001 portray figures that are demonlike in appearance but bear a little-discussed aspect that can be seen in many of the figures he painted — a jutting shoulder, suggesting that these dark figures may be self-portraits. In his polychrome bronze sculptures, too, the left shoulder predominates, while the right arm seems to vanish entirely. “Fritz was born with scoliosis,” Romona Scholder said. “All of these pieces, if you look, he really does that shoulder thing over and over. I never talked about it with him, but I think it’s a result of his uneven shoulder, his need to pad one side of his jacket to make sure his shoulders were even. And of course his last name was Scholder.” Two portraits of Scholder by Andy Warhol are included in the show. The two images, from 1980, sat
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