In 2008, the National Museum of the American Indian mounted a retrospective of the work of the 20th-century Figurative artist Fritz Scholder. It titled the show “Indian/Not Indian,” referring to the identity question at the heart of Scholder’s work. Scholder, who died in 2005, was a quarter Luiseño, a registered member of the tribe, with a father who worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But at points in his career Scholder denied the significance of that Native American heritage. He also made the claim that he would never paint Indians, and then proceeded to spend more than a decade immersed in his Indian series, vibrant portraits that depicted Native Americans in contemporary settings—a buffalo dancer eating an ice cream cone, say, or a man holding a can of Coors—that cast off the romantic overlay long dominating the portrayal of Native American subjects in American art.
It was a revolutionary move, and one that was controversial. “He was really there at the moment that American Indian art started to shift,” explains John Lukavic, a curator at the Denver Art Museum, where another Scholder show, “Super Indian,” opens this weekend. “Prior forms of American Indian art were in some ways formulaic. People expected to see certain things, it had to look a certain way in order for people to recognize it or accept it as American Indian art. He really started breaking the conventions.”
Scholder was born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, in 1937. He spent his childhood moving around the upper Midwest, and then went to Sacramento, where he studied painting under Wayne Thiebaud, a leader of the Bay Area Figurative movement. In 1964 Scholder began teaching painting at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was there, in 1967, that he pulled a 180 and turned his focus to Native-American figures, motivated, he said, by his students’ clumsy handling of the same subject matter. Though he traveled extensively, and after abandoning his Indian series in 1980 moved to New York for a spell, he largely lived in the Southwest, keeping homes in Galisteo, New Mexico, and Scottsdale, Arizona.
“It’s not that he was unaware of his roots at any point,” Lukavic tells me by phone. “He very much saw himself as a world artist. He was trained in Abstract Expressionism and Figurative. He saw himself in dialog with artists like Francis Bacon and Richard Diebenkorn. He never wanted to be marginalized as just a Native artist.”
Nor as “just” a Southwestern artist. “Fritz Scholder was no more a regional artist than Georgia O’Keeffe was,” Lukavic says. And though Scholder helped to reimagine the Native American in art at the height of the American Indian Movement, he also rejected interpretations of his work as protest paintings.
All this is merely background: “Super Indian,” though it focuses on Scholder’s Indian series and is mounted as part of a conscious museum initiative to highlight contemporary Native American artists, isn’t overly concerned with Scholder’s conflicted relationship with his indigenous heritage. The NMAI “did an incredible job on that subject,” says Lukavic, freeing him up to turn his attention to other elements of Scholder’s work.
Like his use of color, which, as Lukavic observes in the catalog that accompanies the show, was the artist’s foremost concern. “The subject matter—that is, the Indian—was not really what Scholder considered important in his paintings,” writes Lukavic. “In contrast to many of his students who started with the subject matter and then explored techniques and approaches, Scholder was primarily a colorist and lover of paint. His exploration of the Indian subject matter was really an exploration of color.”
The fact that his paintings got people up in arms? That just “proved he was onto something.” Here, Lukavic talks us through one work from the show, Scholder’s 1976 acrylic Seated Indian with Rifle (After Remington).
Why did you pick this painting to focus on?
Scholder was very interested in challenging romantic stereotypes of the past. He’d very often take on Western photographers or painters head-on, taking this romantic myth that was created by nonnative Western artists and putting it in more contemporary situations, stripping away elements of what was in the original painting or photograph in order to focus on certain details that ultimately changed the meaning drastically.
In this painting, Seated Indian with Rifle, we have in parenthesis: “After Remington.” Scholder, I believe, misidentified the painting that he was basing this off of as being by Frederic Remington. In fact it was by Henry F. Farny, another 19th-century painter. The seated form you see on the pink background was taken from the Farny painting The Captive, 1885. In the historic image we see a seated Indian, cross-legged, with a rifle across his lap. In front is a shirtless white male staked to the ground. The title is The Captive. It seems as if the Native is watching over this white captive. In the background you see a scene of a teepee camp. What Scholder has done is take this painting where the Native person seems to be the aggressor, strip out all the elements around him, take away the scene, and put the figure on a solid pink color field, a vivid pink. It creates mystery. It makes you consider: Who is this individual? What is he doing? Instead of the Native person being the antagonizer or the captor, the figure almost seems like a protector. It frees you up to reconsider the role of the Native person in the painting.
Why would he have chosen this pink for the background?
I interpret the pink as a very contemporary color, a very bright pop color. But it also goes back to the way he used colors side by side. The contrast between the pink and the dark figure really makes the image pop. The pink almost glows. Which is interesting because the subject matter is more guarded. Certainly anytime you incorporate a firearm into a work, it adds some form of tension.
I don’t know if the painting would have been as successful if it had been any other color. There’s another painting in the show called Indian and Buffalo After Catlin, which is riffing off a George Catlin work. The image is a more complete scene, with a wavy horizon line and an Indian man on horseback with a bow and arrow shooting a buffalo. He’s taken a much more literal connection to the original painting, and with a lot of pink paint on his brush, just flung his hand across it, slashing it away, as if to say: “This is the stereotype; now I’m using this bright bold pink to cross it off. This is invalid.” I think he was going for the same strong dramatic effect in the pink background of the painting we’re talking about.
There’s something in it that’s also quite reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud.
Very much so. Scholder took an oil painting class from Thiebaud. He was very familiar with Thiebaud’s paint application, thick buttery paint with rich color saturation. Scholder loved painting, moving paint around on the canvas. That was where he was in his element, exploring what paint and color could possibly do in a painting. I don’t doubt Thiebaud had a very strong influence on Scholder’s color palette and the way he layered paint. You can see the thick line work and the brushwork that’s still very present on the canvas.
Do we know when he first encountered these paintings by Remington and Catlin and Farny?
I can’t say for sure. He also riffed off historical photos of Native [people], especially early on in the Indian series paintings. When he got to the Institute of American Indian Arts, there was an agency that provided photo archives of Native American people as a resource, as a study archive for art students. So Scholder and his students would spend time going through photo archives, looking for images as inspiration for their work. But he was a very cosmopolitan person. He spent a lot of time in museums, traveled around an awful lot, saw a lot of this work. He would have been familiar with how Native American people were depicted in the past.
He painted Seated Indian with Rifle in 1976, which was at the height of the American Indian Movement. I know he didn’t think of these as protest paintings, but was there anything happening historically that informed this?
It would be pure speculation, but 1973 was Wounded Knee, when there was a standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, between the federal government and the American Indian Movement. There were a lot of arms involved, individuals killed. It was a profound moment in American history. In 1969 Native people took over Alcatraz Island. There was a lot of political activity going on at this time, a lot involving armed individuals.
He was famously quoted as saying he didn’t dig Red Power. He said he wasn’t an activist, he wasn’t a protest painter. Of course, the subject matters he painted were very charged. There’s another one in the exhibition called Indian Power from 1972. It depicts a Native man on horseback with his fist in the air on a blue color field. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the image of Black Power from the 1968 Olympics of Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their gloved fists up in the air. While Scholder didn’t consider himself a protest or activist painter, that painting was used as a symbol of Native empowerment by Native people at the time. It became a beacon of Native empowerment, of self-determination.
Did he ever respond to that?
No, I don’t think so. There were prints and posters made. The image appeared on a musical album in 1975. It was in a number of print publications. But it hasn’t publically been seen since 1977. After years of searching I actually found the painting. It came to light in June of this year, and now we have it in the exhibition.
Was Seated Indian with Rifle seen as explicitly speaking to the Red Power movement? In a vacuum this could depict an act of protest . . .
It certainly could. That’s the whole thing about a lot of these paintings. When Scholder stripped away all the other contextual elements and put it on a solid color field, it really freed anyone to look at it and come up with their own conclusions. It was painted in 1976. There certainly was a lot of political activity at the time, as there is today. I’m sure it will resonate with people who have that context coming in to see the painting. If someone doesn’t have all that context, they may come up with other interpretations. But I think that’s part of the beauty. It’s layered: The more you know, the more you might see into it.
So why revisit Fritz Scholder right now? Why did this feel like the right show for the moment?
The Denver Art Museum is reinvigorating our emphasis on collecting and exhibiting and putting on programs related to the art of American Indian artists. This really kicked off back in 2011. In the process of doing focus groups with different communities, people who self-identified as having an interest in American Indian art, our curator found that when people go to see European paintings, they expect to see named artists like Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin. When they go to see an American Indian exhibition, they expect to see art by Lakota, Cheyenne, or Navajo, as if this work just bubbles up from primordial cultural ooze, without the human element. People were not recognizing that this work was being created by American Indian artists. That was a wake-up call: Oh, my God, how have people not gotten this? What can we do better to really emphasize the individual eye and hand of an artist that goes into making these incredible works of art?
We’ve been collecting American Indian art for so long, and we continue to collect the art produced today. In many ways the market is very undervalued for contemporary art by American Indian artists. But it’s incredibly compelling. Some of it is gripping, some heartbreaking, some self-exploratory, exploring a sense of identity. Like the work of Kent Monkman, who is based in Toronto. He’s a Canadian Cree artist. His work appropriates 19th-century Hudson River School landscape paintings, but then he populates them with, not only Native people, but often gay Native people, people referred to as two-spirit individuals. He’s decolonizing the landscape by populating it with Native people today, but also normalizing the fact that two-spirit or gay individuals have always existed in Native communities. While history doesn’t necessarily record them, they were there and still are today.
A lot of the work that’s being done today is very much rooted in some of the notions that Fritz Scholder was pushing back in the ’60s and ’70s, getting people to look at Native subject matters in very different ways, challenging the romantic stereotype of the past, looking at Native people in contemporary society. That doesn’t mean that Native people are rejecting their cultural mores: They can still participate in those and participate in contemporary society. The signature image for this exhibition is Super Indian No. 2, where you have this seemingly historic Pueblo dancer eating a strawberry ice cream cone. In these subtle ways, Scholder’s taking things that people might consider anachronistic and putting them together. Because, in reality, they are contemporary. When viewers realize that, they can start adjusting their perceptions or misconceptions of who a Native is or what a Native does.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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