Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. I am proud to say I am longtime member of this particular Smithsonian museum. I have not been to the NMAI on the National Mall in Washington DC, but I do visit Manhattan often enough that I’ve been able to get to the George Gustav Heye Center, a smaller branch of the NMAI. Both locations are currently running an exhibition called “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian”, which I plan to see this January.

Born in 1937, Scholder grew up “non-Indian” in Minnesota and South Dakota. He was one-quarter Luseino, a California Mission tribe. He was the fifth Fritz in a family of primarily German ancestry. The family story goes that his German ancestor wandered around California after the Civil War, and when he got lost in the desert, he lay down to die. He was found by a Native American woman and later married her. What a romantic story.....

In high school, Fritz Scholder was mentored by Sioux artist, Oscar Howe. During his college years he studied with Wayne Thiebaud (one of my favorite painters). After exhibiting his early paintings in shows around California, he became involved with the Rockefeller Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona during the 1960s. In the 70s his fame rose following the exhibition of his “Indians Forever”, a series of lithographs. For the rest of his life, his work was often controversial (he vowed to paint "real, not red"), but his success was large. He lived in Santa Fe and Manhattan.

Many people recognize Scholder as the painter who presented Indians in an almost pop-art context; a painting that comes to mind is one he did of a Native American man wrapped in an American flag. (I learned this painting was based on actual 19th century photographs of Indians dressed in surplus flags after their tribal regalia had been confiscated.) Other artifacts found in his paintings along with his native subjects were beer cans and cats. He strove to break down sentimental stereotypes of Indians as “noble savages”. He thought of himself as an “American Expressionist”. His paintings celebrate the medium of paint, drips, smears and all. His method of working often involved playing music and painting wildly late into the night. He loved to do research, read and prepare for his paintings. He was also successful in many other mediums: sculpture, photography, collage, etc. He passed away in 2005.

Here are a few more particulars I picked up researching this venerable American artist. He collected artifacts, including animal skulls, mummies, taxidermic creatures, and Day of the Dead stuff. He loved ancient Egypt. He owned a 1979 gold Rolls Royce. He said he woke up happy every morning and was a natural optimist. Critic Malcolm Margolin said that Fritz Scholder had “a greatness of spirit” and a “deep, dark playfulness”. In an article published in the National Review (4-2-1976), Ruth Berenson said “his figures have an uncompromising monumentality and strength”. The Fritz Scholder webpage and Artcyclopedia are further places to find out more about the artist.

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