Feature Archive

Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian: New York City / Washington, D.C.
By K. Kimberly King
"People don't really like Indians," declared Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), whose taboo-breaking, colorist images of fellow Native Americans now showing as Indian/Not Indian at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) still provoke controversy.

"Oh, they like their own conceptions of the Indian - usually the Plains Indian, romantic and noble and handsome and somehow the embodiment of wisdom and patience. But Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system...we have really been viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society. The Indian of reality is a paradox -- a monster to himself and a non-person to society"

Showcased in this, the largest Scholder retrospective to date - including the sublimely hued Super Pueblo (1968), the elegant American Indian (undated) [right], and the controversial Indian with Beer Can (1969) - are the prolific artist's radical transformations of both Native American art and viewers' perceptions of tribal peoples.

Renowned for breaking barriers, dramatic brushwork, and vivid, surprising colors - green braids framing Indian No. 1 (1967), Falling Buffalo's purple hide (1973), and, as his life was ebbing, swirling his own blood with Diet Coke to shape skulls - the artist who vowed never to paint Indians remains a subject of fierce debate in Native art circles.

NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee/Comanche) verbalizes questions Scholder posed on canvas: "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? What of the non-Indian who employs traditional Indian styles or treats Indian subjects?"

In his 1978 publication, Indian Kitsch, Scholder explains: "Being one-quarter Luiseño Indian (a California Mission tribe with its own language), … I have a unique perspective. I am a non-Indian Indian. I do not feel the pull of the dichotomy of two cultures. However, I am aware of [their] incongruous nature ...." Scholder refused any classification other than "artist." "I've never called myself an Indian artist. Everyone else has."

Yet, as Truman T. Lowe (Ho-Chunk), NMAI curator of contemporary art, observes, Scholder "became the most successful and highly regarded painter of Native Americans in U.S. history." Lowe organized this exhibit of 135 paintings, prints, and bronze sculptures with co-curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), who calls Scholder's career "extravagant, baffling, still consequential and framed by ... dichotomy and contradiction: the abstractionist who turns to figuration; the artist who (twice) broke his promise to never paint Indians; the recluse who starred in nationally televised documentaries. Over and over he said that his favorite word was paradox."Scholder smilingly told interviewers in 1996: "Fine art is still the best racket around," underlining his fame as both genius and opportunist.

Indian/Not Indian, boasting an ambitious website and range of podcasts [web feature], is NMAI's first two-site show: Washington's National Mall museum highlights many controversial Indian paintings from the 1960s and '70s which established Scholder's fame (and wealth); the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan presents works from the 1980s - mythical beings and the unknown - when Scholder lived in a nearby loft, attempting - without success - to win Eastern establishment acclaim.

"In the 1960s and '70s, the notion of American Indian art was turned on its head by artists who fought against prejudice and popular clichés," writes Lowery Stokes Sims in the exhibition catalogue she edited. Curator at New York's Museum of Arts and Design, Sims pegs Scholder "at the forefront of this revolution…." His "portrayals of Native American life combined realism, tragedy, and spirituality with the genres of abstract expressionism and pop art." He "deconstruct[ed] … the historical 'Indian' stereotype promulgated in images created in the 19th and early 20th centuries by white photographers such as Edward S. Curtis, A. C. Vroman, and Mathew Brady."

Born Oct. 6, 1937 in Breckenridge, Minnesota, to a Caucasian mother who'd served as typist for novelist Oliver La Farge and a half-Luiseño father who administered Indian schools for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Fritz was eager to escape his childhood in the Dakotas, where brutal winter winds forced the family to cling to ropes linking house to barn to keep them from blowing away.

Although he and his two sisters lived on BIA campuses because of their father's work, they attended public schools. Scholder branded the BIA system "a brain-washing technique of trying to make Indians white."

"My father," averred Scholder,"was ashamed of being an Indian." His parents were showered with wedding gifts of Indian baskets, rugs, pottery at their marriage on a Hopi reservation on horseback, "but my father threw all but one away": a pot which eventually housed Fritz's crayons. He later learned that the black vessel had been fashioned by famous San Ildefonso Pueblo potter María Martinez.

"People like the Scholders," co-curator Smith explains, "considered Indians to be from reservations. During the mid-20th century, it wasn't just the BIA that believed Indians should be assimilated; it was also much of Indian Country. Concepts at the core of Indian values in the U. S. and Canada today -- that traditional beliefs and practices must be preserved and continued, that languages and ceremonies should be protected at all costs, that being Indian is a good thing -- were not the prevailing ideas back then."

"If I saw myself as different," reflected Scholder, "it was because I knew from the beginning that I wanted to paint." Differentness began in boyhood when "I was real shy. All I wanted to do was stay in my room and draw, so I wouldn't have to deal with people...."

When the family was transferred to Sacramento in 1957, Fritz enrolled in art school, where he studied with pop painter Wayne Thiebaud and won numerous awards for his abstract works. But by his 1960 graduation from Sacramento City College, he felt stifled working two menial jobs to support his wife and infant son.

In 1961 a Rockefeller Foundation program aimed at energizing Indian culture rescued him. As an enrolled Luiseño tribal member, he was invited to participate in an elite art program in Arizona which later developed into Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Scholder taught painting and art history there from 1964-69, while creating hundreds of his own works. [IAIA is showing, through June 7, 2009, Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look. See website.]

In a 1968 booklet about IAIA, Cherokee artist Lloyd Kiva New observes: "The Indian value system always has been centered on the idea that man should seek to blend his existence into the ... rhythms of nature, as opposed to the dominant society's quest for control of nature through scientific manipulation.... Psychologically, the American Indian generally has remained aloof from the melting pot concept upon which this country was structured."

Scholder's first Santa Fe canvases concentrated on landscapes, as he steered his Native American students away from 'Indian art.' One, Alfred Young Man, 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, and we couldn't see any value in that."

But, gradually influenced by his students' rejection of the formulaic "Studio Style"- flat perspectives romanticizing nature and Indian life that held sway from the 1930s through the '60s - and their experiments with realistic Native portraits, Scholder tested Indian motifs with New Mexico No. 1 (1964) [above right], color-drenched stripes evoking both rugged Southwest lands and Navajo textiles.

By 1967, "I realized that someone needed to paint the Indian differently." With his Indian No. 1 of that year, "...people just freaked out. I knew they would -- the first Indian had green hair."

In short order came Indian No. 16 (1967), a featureless Indian with a firm question mark floating over his headdress, the pellet-eyed green face of a wary Monster Indian (1968), and Four Indian Riders (1967), horses and hands pointed in opposite directions, conjuring, perhaps, the crossed pathways toward political organization and the quest for civil rights imposed by the multiplicity of indigenous languages.

"I'm interested," Scholder claimed, "in someone reacting to the work. And I don't much care if they react negatively or positively, as long as they react. I felt it to be a compliment when I was told that I had destroyed the traditional style of Indian art...."

He enjoyed "celebration of paint, which is sensual in its smears, drips, and consistency.... No one color is very exciting. Only when the second and third colors appear does the dialogue begin."

Dialogue - many would say provocation - deepened irrevocably with Indian with Beer Can (1969) [below], on public view for the first time in more than 20 years. Shattering the "Noble Savage" stereotype, the now iconic painting shocked both Native American and mainstream art worlds when first exhibited. It yet reverberates: a portrait of a man in a wide-brimmed, black cowboy hat, with an open can of Coors at his elbow. His skull-like, feral teeth are limned in bracelet and hatband. Co-curator Smith finds it "still scary after all these years. Though the eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses, you know they are as dead and soulless as those of a shark."

This raw confrontation with the formerly taboo subject of Native alcoholism "forever altered Indian art," adds Smith. "It's easily the greatest and most influential painting in the history of Indian art. The picture blew a hole right through the viewer's head, and the holes were different depending on who you were. To the traders in Santa Fe, it was an unspeakable travesty. Most Indians hated it, and nearly 40 years later, many still do."

NMAI Director Gover finds it "hard to look at this painting and just as hard to look away. It speaks with certainty of the trinity of Indians, alcohol, and death."

Directly across peers out Dying Indian (1969), blood-streaked, with even more feral teeth. Around the corner hang Walking to the Next Bar (1974), whose mauve-faced, misshapen man lacks right arm and right half of his face, and Drunk Indian No. 2 (1972), picturing a featureless woman holding onto the skirt of her green dress.

"These Indians," writes Sims in the catalogue, "were loafers and drinkers and wise guys, which would have been shocking enough, but it was Scholder's distortion, his disfigurement of the human form and his unnatural, jarring blending of colors that suggest a profound disconnect between the tourist-approved vision of Native life and the gritty reality he observed every day."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Native Americans are five times more likely than whites to die of alcohol-related causes, including liver disease. That incidence - plus higher rates of drunk driving and fetal alcohol syndrome - translates into a life expectancy six years lower than the U.S. average. To depict such afflicted souls, noted Scholder, "an artist has to transcend a subject, or he loses the battle. The subject wins."

While creating "I work in a trance. You are being God, if you will. 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."

By the time Scholder left Santa Fe in 1969, he was celebrated as both artist and personality. Growing wealthy, and ever curious, he traveled the world. He returned to the U.S. in the '70s to break more taboos with his Massacre series - blood-spattered snowscapes, black figures writhing in death throes, and literal "redskins" dumped into wagons.

Scholder painted himself throughout his career, often on his birthday. At 28 and newly arrived in Santa Fe, he placed red glasses over unremarkable features - a "not Indian" visage - before letting his hair grow long and adapting a more Native style - the "Indian" half of his idiosyncratic equation.

A 1972 self-portrait depicts a vampire, a creature which had fascinated him since childhood. When wealthy and able to travel the globe, he headed to Transylvania to hunt down an antique vampire slaying kit. He kept it - complete with stake, pistol, dagger, and holy water - at bedside. His house included a skull room and a collection of taxidermic creatures, including a fully preserved buffalo at the head of his bed. It was in that Scottsdale, Arizona home that Fritz Scholder died Feb. 10, 2005 from diabetic complications.

"You must walk that tightrope between accident and discipline. Accident by itself…so what? Discipline by itself is boring. By walking that tightrope and putting down something on a canvas...coming from your guts, you have a chance of making marks that ... will live longer than you."

"I give thanks every day that I've been able to take my craziness and make it work for me."

Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian:
          National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.: through August 16, 2009
          National Museum of the American Indian, New York City: through May 17, 2009
          Exhibition Mini-site

Museum/Not Museum

The National Museum of the American Indian
Fritz Scholder's painterly and verbal provocations regarding identity are perfectly housed in a memorably unique structure whose content and focus have led some to consider it Museum/Not Museum.

Indigenous architects, planners, and curators worked with a "consensual approach" in order to wholly ground the NMAI in Native perspectives, deliberately departing from traditional constructs for "shrines of the muses" in order to redress customary treatment of Indians as 'relics of natural history'.

During four years of community-based consultations, one elderly Native lamented: "We've been trying to educate the visitors for five hundred years; how long will it take...?"

Native writer Amy Lonetree elaborates: "The atrocities committed by Columbus, those under his command, and those who followed him are legion. [In the century and a half after 1492 "Contact," nine out of ten Indians died, largely from raging epidemics of measles, yellow fever, and smallpox.] In the name of God or science, in the pursuit of gold or glory, and in the services of imperialism or manifest destiny, the bodies and beliefs of the Indian peoples of the Western Hemisphere, along with their possessions and their lands, were plundered and debased... A substantial portion of the American Indian collections hoarded in museums is made up of that tainted bounty. Museums are indeed very painful sites for Native peoples as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.

"The museum world has changed significantly from the days when they were considered 'ivory towers of exclusivity' to today when Indigenous people are actively involved in making museums more open and community-relevant sites."

Hence, Natives from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego crafted an NMAI Mission statement to "recognize and affirm to Native communities and the non-Native public the historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of the Natives of the entire Western Hemisphere... and enhance the development... of Native culture and community." In the words of one guiding voice: "Being an Indian is not about being part something; it is about being part of something."

Established through a 1989 Act of Congress, NMAI comprises three buildings: the Washington museum aligned to the center of the U.S Capitol dome it faces; the George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan; and the Cultural Resources Center in suburban Maryland, housing most of NMAI's 825,000 objects representing virtually all North American tribes, along with several from Latin America and the Caribbean. The oldest artifacts date back 12,000 years.

[About the NMAI Cultural Resources Center: Research is by appointment only. Phone Collections Manager Pat Nietfeld (301) 238-1454. More information is available in its FAQ list.]

When the flagship museum opened Sept. 21, 2004 on Washington's National Mall, it drew 80,000 people - many of them indigenous celebrants embarking on a six-day First Americans Festival. Designed by Canadian Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal and his team, the five-story curvilinear building of tawny limestone evokes cliff-dwellings roughened by wind and water through time. Its prism window invites sunrays to spray rainbows across the entry hall and frame special markers on the Solstices. The sui generis structure, also aligned to the cardinal directions, is filled with Native symbols representing Indian lore, nature, and astronomy. For example, the Anishinaabe ("first people") from the Great Lakes pass on their ancestors' symbology: turtles tracking truth, eagles flying in love and bison profiling respect.

NMAI's total circularity - there are no right angles - means curving walls create erratic traffic patterns. One visitor was overheard wondering: "How do you know where you've been and where you are going?"

While popular and critical reaction to the architecture and sheer presence of NMAI has been generally positive, Native and non-Native critics alike have lamented lost opportunities for the permanent exhibitions inside:

- Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World presents eight Native cosmologies and the spiritual relationship between humans and nature

- Our Peoples centers on Native history told by eight different tribes

- Our Lives focuses on contemporary Native life, displaying questions: 'Who is Native?' 'Who decides?' juxtaposed with photos of contemporary Native people

One Native consultant emphasized the tribal practice of "listening to the space between words" to make meaning for oneself. "By saying less, rather than more, the museum's exhibits require the same kind of active participation or 'response-ability'of their audiences." (NMAI's Executive Handbook vaunts "user intensive self-definition".)

Visitors are informed: "Most minorities have a homeland somewhere, a place that's theirs. The Indian has a homeland that is possessed by another, dominant culture. This has, psychologically, very strange ramifications." Another wall text quotes Joy Harjo (Muskoke/Creek): "When your people have been uprooted from a land that carries your stories and history, you learn to carry that land in your heart."


Museum/Not Museum continues. Click here to read complete article.


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