Fritz Scholder: Non-Indian Indian
Article reprinted with permission from THE Magazine
"Fritz Scholder painted Indians. Often the Indians were monsters. Sometimes the monstrous Indians were self-portraits. Scholder’s work forces Indian people of a certain generation to remember that we used to have short hair and wear IHS glasses. That we passed for white. That we drink. That we weren’t always about tradition. That we often hated ourselves, and sometimes we still do. That life is ugly and beautiful, that monsters are real. And that death is never far away."
—Paul Chatt Smith
Fritz Scholder was one-quarter Luiseño, but said he grew up as a non-Indian. He swore that he would never paint Indians. He maintained that he was not an Indian artist. He claimed his art was not political, but it polarized the art world. For every position Scholder took, he also investigated the opposite viewpoint. His paintings posed questions: What is Indian art? Who is an Indian artist? To what extent must a person have lived an Indian life to be an Indian artist? And what of the non-Indian who employs traditional Indian styles or treats Indian subjects?
The perception of American Indian art was changed in the sixties and seventies by artists like Scholder who fought against the cliché of the American Indian. From 1964 to 1969 Scholder taught painting and art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he steered his Native American students away from so-called Indian art. One student recalls, “Initially, Scholder was tyrannical in his view that we would never get any place painting Indians. He made me destroy many of my works. He wanted us all to be Abstract Expressionists.” Scholder utterly demolished Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School, which had dominated Indian art with romantic clichés of genre art on Indian themes—flat perspectives romanticizing nature and Indian life. Scholder stated that these Indian paintings were not only a “visual cliché , they were a psychological cliché.”
By 1967, Scholder realized that someone needed to paint the Indian differently. “With Indian No. 1 people were freaked-out. I knew they would be, as the first Indian had green hair. I felt it to be a compliment when I was told that I had destroyed the traditional style of Indian art.” He went on to say, “An artist must walk the tightrope between accident and discipline. By walking that tightrope and putting down something on a canvas from your gut, you have a chance of making marks that will live longer than you. It is completely up to you to be your own worst critic. I take each work to the brink of disaster and then pull it back until it defies me to go any further, and then I know it’s done. I give thanks every day that I’ve been able to take my craziness and make it work for me.”
Scholder created an extraordinary fusion of Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and Pop Art to express his vision of the Southwest and the Indian experience. Fritz Scholder—prolific painter, sculptor, lithographer, teacher, mentor, and bookmaker—an abstractionist who turned to figuration and changed Indian art forever. Words of wisdom by Scholder to students at the University of Oklahoma commencement address, in 2002:
You must be yourself on purpose. First, find out who you are and fully accept it. Fall in love with your life and live your life with finesse and manners. Be a role model for yourself and many will be influenced. To truly keep something, you must give it away. Beware of progress, a myth made false by the true lies and factoids of our history. Like the Greek mask of tragedy, man’s excellence is equal to his most tragic flaws. Are we, the best and brightest, watching our planet dimming? The cybernetic age challenges each of us. The digital landscape quakes. Overpopulation and disease run rampant. The battle has begun between the shaman/artist and the cyber/technocrat. We are living at a place of crucifixion in a crossroad of time. Opposites cross. Polarities collide. Industry and technology have succeeded for two centuries by moving in complete indifference and denial toward nature. Reinvent yourself with every day. Each day can be a new adventure in your quest for truth.
Here are some of Scholder’s early works from what has been called his Monster series, seminal in its impact:
Indian at the Bar. 1973
Mad Indian No. 3. Circa 1970
Dark Indian. Circa 1970
Portrait of a Massacred Indian No. 3. 1973
Insane Indian No. 26. 1972