Born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, Fritz Scholder (1937–2005) was, along with Oscar Howe, Allan Houser, R. C. Gorman, Maria Martinez, and T. C. Cannon, among the first Native American artists to receive international acclaim. Although he maintained an ambivalent relationship to his indigenous identity throughout his lifetime, Scholder is best-known for his vivid, unconventional images of Native Americans. Juxtaposing figures in traditional dress with contemporary elements, Scholder's work reevaluated and reinterpreted stereotypical, romantic, and conventional representations of Native Americans. The series of Native American paintings Scholder produced are simultaneously brutal and beautiful, magical and humorous, reflecting the lived, quotidian experiences of late twentieth-century indigenous people.
For example, one of his most famous images, Super Indian #2 (with ice-cream cone), features a buffalo dancer in traditional regalia taking a break to eat strawberry ice cream. As with most of his Native-themed paintings, the dancer appears in disembodied space with no familiar background to give the figure context. In the painting, the dancer seems to be sitting against a wall in a gymnasium or some other indoor public space. The ambiguity of the figure's location leads the viewer to question the ways in which Native Americans are often distilled in timeless space, outside the context of the various communities to which they belong.
Scholder's images of Native Americans aren't comfortable or comforting. His Indians smoke and drink alcohol, and they are often draped in the U.S. flag. They critique Euro-American colonization in paintings such as Portrait of a Massacred Indian, which portrays a Plains warrior whose head has been shattered, and illustrate the Indian Everyman in works such as Indian with Beer Can, a study of a grim, sunglass-wearing man seated next to a Coors can who flashes his sharp, skeletal teeth at the viewer. As a result, his work has been controversial with non-Natives who prefer romantic visions of Indians, as well as with Native Americans who find his representations of the paradoxical and darker aspects of living as an indigenous person in the United States to be disrespectful.
Scholder's father, who was of Luiseño and German ancestry, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At various times during his career, Scholder alternately embraced and maintained a distance from his identity as a tribal person, an attitude that created distrust in the larger Native American community. In an interview, Scholder claimed that "I was mislabeled an Indian artist . . . I grew up in public schools and I'm not Indian" (Academy of Achievement, 1996, 3). Similarly, he wrote, "I am a non-Indian Indian" (Scholder, 1979).
Although he didn't grow up near his tribal relatives in San Diego County, California, Scholder did spend much of his childhood on or near reservations. As a high school student in Pierre, South Dakota, he took classes with Oscar Howe, the acclaimed Lakota artist. In addition to indigenous influences, Scholder's work was shaped by the San Francisco Bay area figurative style of Wayne Thiebaud, with whom he shared gallery space in the 1950s, as well as work by artists as far ranging as Picasso, Matisse, Bacon, and Rauschenberg. In addition to painting Native American images, Scholder has produced sculpture, photography, poetry, and multimedia work, touching on themes from his travels to places as far-reaching as Romania and Egypt. Scholder's work has substantially influenced the American art scene and was the subject of two major retrospectives and a PBS documentary.
Scholder taught art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1964 but left to pursue his own artistic ambitions full-time. In 1967 he began his Indian series, possibly because of his experience working with Native American students at IAIA and becoming excited by the fresh, innovative, and contemporary works the young people were generating there. In 1972, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Information Service organized an exhibition of Scholder's work and invited him to tour Europe with T. C. Cannon, a Caddo/Kiowa artist and former student, a trip that launched both of the artists' international careers. Scholder's work in the 1980s grew out of the Indian series but returned to broader and more abstract themes. In the 1990s, he painted a new Indian series, Rot/Red, and in 2002 his last major show, Orchids and Other Flowers, dealt with the artist's reaction to 9/11.
Michelle H. Raheja
Academy of Achievement. No date. "Fritz Scholder." Available at: http://www.achievement.org. Accessed February 6, 2006.; Scholder, Fritz. 1979. Indian Kitsch. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press.; Taylor, Joshua C., et al. 1982. Fritz Scholder. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.