I don't like to talk about the work itself. I talk around
it. The work is visual; people can approach it on whatever level
they choose, and its meaning depends on their frame of reference.
That's what they are going to get out of it. - Fritz Scholder
On display through June 17, 2016 at the Denver Art Museum, Super
Indian: Fritz Scholder, 19671980 features more than 40 rarely
seen, monumental paintings and lithographs by the renowned, sometimes
controversial artist Fritz Scholder (19372005). This is one
of the first exhibits to explore how Scholder mixed figurative and
pop art influences to create colorful, compelling and revolutionary
images of Natives in a way that had not been seen before
holding beer cans and ice cream cones, painted bright neon pink
and draped in American flags with distorted faces.
Influenced by abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and
Franz Kline, as well as painters with disturbing psyches such as
Francis Bacon and Francisco de Goya, Scholder's work reveals
the raw reality of being an American Indian through the eyesand
paletteof an artist who once vowed never to paint Indians.
"Scholder claimed he was not an American Indian artist,
but he was. He claimed his art was not political, but it certainly
polarized the art world. For every position he took, he also explored
the opposite perspective," said John Lukavic, associate curator
of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum and curator of Super Indian.
"But this artist was first and foremost a colorist who used
figurative art to test the limits of what paint can express."
Following its Denver debut, the exhibition will travel to the
Phoenix Art Museum and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in
Overland Park, Kansas.
Drawing its title from the iconic painting Super Indian No.
2, the exhibition begins with Scholder's controversial Indian
series, started in 1967, and ends with his 1980 Indian Land paintings,
which marked a major shift in palette and subject matter. The exhibit
showcases the evolution of his style and themes: Early Indian series,
pop art, psychological portraiture, stereotypes and representation
and dark, mysterious subjects. The central elements remain - the
figure, vibrant color and energetic brushwork. The exhibition also
includes two portraits of Fritz Scholder by Andy Warhol.
Scholder broke almost every rule there was for an American Indian
artist if in fact there were "rules" at all. He
combined pop art with abstract expressionism. He shunned the sentimental
portrayal of traditional Indians and in so doing helped pave the
way for artists who followed such as Brad Kahlhamer who contributes
an essay to the show catalog.
Scholder was one quarter American Indian, and when he created
the work that put him on the art world map his "Indian"
series in the 1960s he made people mad. The first painting
had the word "Indian" stenciled on it, as if the image
couldn't be identified without the label.
Decades later, Scholder is the subject of three exhibitions
across the country. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the
American Indian has organized two one in New York and one
in Washington, D.C. both called "Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not
Indian." And in Santa Fe, N.M., where Scholder taught in the
1960s, the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum organized an
exhibition titled "Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look."
The image that really made people take notice from Scholder's
Indian series is Indian with Beer Can (1969).
"It's still haunting; it's still devastating
seeing these white teeth, a distorted face to suggest a skull,"
says exhibition co-curator Paul Chaat Smith, who works at the National
Museum of the American Indian. "You can't see the figure's
eyes, they're behind sunglasses incredibly arresting
and powerful work even today, but back then it was extraordinary."
The can of Coors in the foreground is an in your face example
of how Scholder painted what he saw - though that included alcoholism
in Indian Country.
"He's really talking about the condition of the American
Indian that he saw," says "Indian/Not Indian" co-curator
Truman Lowe, at the National Museum of the American Indian. "And
it's not pretty."
But sometimes it's also funny as in the painting of the
buffalo head dancer holding an ice cream cone.
"We were at Santo Domingo Pueblo, and we had kind of left
the crowd and walked around a corner, and here sat a buffalo dancer,"
recalls Scholder's second wife, Romona Scholder. Scholder decided
to paint him. In the portrait, the dancer wears a horned headdress
and beads around his neck. And in his hand just as Scholder
saw him instead of the traditional rattle, there's an
ice cream cone with two scoops.
"He went, 'Oh my God,'" says Romona, recalling
her late husband's reaction to the incongruous sight. "And
I think that that's why this painting is quintessentially Scholder
because he picked up that Indian-as-mythical-being and Indian-as-ice-cream-cone-eater."
In the 1982 PBS documentary Fritz Scholder: An American Portrait,
the artist discussed the origins of the "Indian" series.
"I succumbed to a subject that I vowed I would never paint:
the American Indian," Scholder said. "The subject was
loaded, but here I was in Santa Fe. It was hard not to be seduced
by the Indian."
Scholder was one-quarter Luiseno, but he said he grew up "non-Indian."
Born in 1937 in Breckenridge, Minn., he spent his childhood in North
Dakota and South Dakota.
In a documentary made on him, Scholder likened himself to the
abstract expressionists: "The thing is to get the paint on
the canvas. I don't care if you use your fingers, your rag,
brushes, cardboard it doesn't matter it's
getting that paint on the canvas. You get it on the canvas and you
see what happens. It drips, it smears, it's thick or it's
thin or you make washes. I consider myself a colorist. One color
by itself isn't that interesting it's the second
color and a third color, and a dialogue starts and pretty soon you're
swept up in it. You really don't know what's going to
In 1964, he accepted a teaching position in Santa Fe and remained
on the faculty through 1969. In the 1980s Scholder went to New York
as part of his mission to make it, to become an art star. Andy Warhol
painted his portrait. He went to openings and was embraced by an
art world intrigued by his "otherness".
In 1975, Scholder did a series of etchings called Ten Indians.
Each portrays a different member of a tribe dressed in regalia.
The last one is a Luiseno. It's Scholder in sunglasses
and an ascot. Indian or not Indian? Fritz Scholder remained both,
right until the end.