A major exhibition at the Denver Art Museum showcases the revolutionary American Indian-themed paintings and prints of Fritz Scholder.
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In 1969, the image of the American Indian in art changed. Before then, Native Americans had always been portrayed either romantically, as Noble Savages or Vanishing Indians, or ethnographically, as subjects for observation. Then Fritz Scholder painted Indian With Beer Can (1969). The bluntly titled portrait shows the Indian in question dressed in a white Western shirt, black high-crowned hat, and aviator sunglasses, sitting at a bar with a can of Coors in front of him. Now this was real, contemporary Indian life, and the painting’s iconography hinted at the fact that some of its realities weren’t particularly pleasant or comfortable. It may sound strange to say so today, but even as late as the end of the ’60s, painting an Indian like that was a revolutionary act, one that seemed even more revolutionary coming from an Indian artist.
There’s a certain irony there, since Scholder’s Indian status was somewhat up for debate—and no one debated it more fiercely than Scholder himself. One-quarter Luiseño (a California Mission tribe) and three-quarters white, he was fond of saying, “I’m not an Indian” and in the mid-’60s swore he would “not paint Indians.” Amid the rise of the radical American Indian Movement (AIM), Scholder said, “I don’t dig Red Power and I don’t identify with protest Indian art.” As an influential teacher at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, Scholder gave his students—mostly young people straight off the reservation—a firm grounding in European modernism and postwar American art and urged them to avoid the sentimental “Waters of Minnetonka” approach to Indian painting. Throughout his life (he died in 2005 at the age of 67), Scholder struggled with his Indian identity, as a man and as an artist, and produced several distinct bodies of work, only one of which, lasting from 1969 to 1981, was about Indians. Nevertheless, posterity has judged it to be Scholder’s best.
This month, the Denver Art Museum opens a retrospective exhibition, “Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967–1980” (October 4–January 16), dedicated to this rich period of the artist’s career. It takes its title from a key painting, Super Indian No. 2 (1971), a full-frontal portrait of a hulking figure bedecked in ceremonial finery, from deerskin boots to loincloth to horned buffalo headdress. In his left hand is a pink ice cream cone, which is incongruous only if you assume this man is living in a timeless Indian cosmos. In fact, Scholder is showing us a normal Indian of today, rewarding himself for a ceremonial well done—most likely for tourists—by enjoying one of the side benefits of white civilization. The ice cream cone bears more than a passing resemblance to one of Wayne Thiebaud’s—mystery solved when you learn that Scholder studied with Thiebaud at Sacramento State in the ’50s and that the older artist was his biggest mentor.
Scholder’s colors, almost always super-bright, also show a definite Pop Art aspect, but behind the brightness lurks a real darkness, which comes through in the facial expressions of the figures and the corrosive irony of some of the situations. Take for example, Mad Indian No. 3 (circa 1970). Again we see a figure in conventional “Plains Indian” attire, with a feathered headdress, but the luridly grimacing face is spreading across the canvas in a deeply disconcerting way. “Mad” might mean simply angry, or it might mean crazy, and there is something hallucinatory about the transformative distortions going on in this picture. Here the influence of one of Scholder’s favorite artists, Francis Bacon, comes through very strongly. The face is akin to the violently distorted faces of Bacon’s famous screaming Popes.
In other paintings in the exhibition, the environment in which the figure is placed conveys the sense of dislocation and conflicted identity that Scholder was aiming for. In Indian at a Gallup Bus Depot (1969), the cowboy-looking Indian has his back turned to a gun—is he renouncing violence?—but it’s only the make-believe rifle of an arcade game. Indian in Taos Pueblo (1970) works more subtly. Out of the angles of the pueblo’s adobe walls shadows, rendered in complementary yellow and blue, a strange menace seems to stalk the lone, greyed-out Indian figure. The picture may be about the constricting nature of traditional life in the modern world, or it may simply be a visual symbol of trouble on the horizon.
Not all of Scholder’s Indian works are this grim. Indian at the Lake (1977), a print included in the Denver show, conjures an idyllic vision of Plains life. The befeathered brave on horseback seems to inhabit that archetypal, eternal Indian world that Scholder said he didn’t believe in, albeit a Pop Art-colored version. Not surprisingly, it was this type of work that non-Indian Scholder imitators blatantly ripped off. In 1981, Scholder decided he was done painting Indians. He starting making much more abstract works in darker colors. These did not go down well with the art market. Scholder’s dealer, Elaine Horwitch, dropped him. But he was unfazed. He’d always insisted he was more interested in art than in Indians, and besides, he wasn’t a real Indian anyway, was he?
At the time of the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, Scholder told a reporter, “People don’t really like Indians. 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, living in uncomfortable surroundings. 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.” In his Indian paintings, Scholder showed both the monster mask and what lay beneath it.