When artist Fritz Scholder moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1964, he made a promise to himself.
"I realized that everyone else was painting the Indian," he once said. "So I vowed that I would never paint the Indian," and he kept his focus on abstract landscapes.
An enrolled member of the Luiseno tribe, Scholder also never wanted to be identified as an American Indian artist. He fought the label until his death in 2005.
"Fritz trained under some of the biggest names in the figurative art movement," says John Lukavic, associate curator of Native arts at the Denver Art Museum. "He never wanted to be marginalized. In his mind, he was always working at this world art level."
Lukavic curated "Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967 - 1980," which opened at the museum on Sunday and runs through Jan. 17. The exhibit features 40 rarely seen paintings and lithographs by Scholder. The focus of many of these works: American Indian people.
The Denver curator says the museum has had a long commitment to contemporary Native art, with a collection dating back to 1925. "Super Indian" is part a larger initiative to get contemporary work by American Indian artists seen by a broader audience.
Lukavic, who conducted extensive research on Scholder's life and art, spoke with CPR News.
You say that Scholder was "full of paradoxes." How so?
Fritz said he didn't know how people recognized him as an American Indian artist. But he very much was Native. His father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in American Indian education. And what I've discovered in the course of my research, starting in 1958, Fritz started to self submit work to the Philbrook Museum of Art's Indian Art Annual in Tulsa, which you had to be a self-identified American Indian artist in order to do that. So there was a number of contradictions or paradoxes, you could say, in Fritz's life.
Scholder made this vow not to make Native people the subjects of his art. What caused him to change his mind?
When he got to Santa Fe, he started teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts. All of his students were Native, and they were all painting Native subjects. Fritz tried to open their eyes to the world art movement [and] what other artists were doing to get them to try and do something different with their Native subjects. He said he grew frustrated at the attempts being made and in order for him to communicate it better to others, he needed to do it himself. It came to a head, I guess, in winter of 1967, when he sat down and painted what he said was his first American Indian painting. That's "Indian No. 1," which is in the exhibition. It had green hair, and didn't particularly look Native -- at least not to his eyes. So he went ahead and stenciled the word "Indian" onto the painting.
How did his paintings challenge other portrayals of American Indians in art?
He was famously quoted that he wanted to paint American Indians "real, not red." Meaning he wanted to break stereotypes. He wanted to get rid of this romantic notion of Native people in the West. Early on in his "Indian" series, some of the things that he did are directly taken from works by Edward Curtis, the late 19th-century-early 20th-century photographer, or [American painters] George Catlin and Frederic Remington. He was very much engaged with these artists because he was challenging the romantic myths that they created of Native people. In some of Scholder's paintings, he appropriated the imagery they used and made it very contemporary. There are some painful histories that Native people have endured. Some of them at the hand of the U.S. government. Others like alcoholism. He tried to show that not everything about Native life is pretty.
Tell me about a piece from the exhibition you find particularly interesting.
"Super Indian No. 2" is the signature image for the exhibition. That particular painting was, to him, I think incredibly important because it encapsulated so much of what he did with color and composition. But also... here you have a traditional buffalo dancer sitting down eating a strawberry ice cream cone. For many viewers, when they look at it, they think it's kind of anachronistic -- you have this historic figure from the past and a contemporary ice cream cone. But it's not anachronistic at all. Scholder wrote a poem about this particular piece, which is one of the few times he really addressed an individual piece. What the poem talks about is how in the past [traditional Native ceremonies] were very much for the community. But today's it's become this tourist [attraction]. Scholder felt this is the reality that many Native people experience, where in some ways their culture is on exhibit for others to see. And while Native people participate in these long-established traditions, they are still contemporary people. So they might eat a double dipped strawberry ice cream cone. This [painting] can make you realize what your stereotypes actually are, even if you didn't expect to have stereotypes.
He tried to ignore the horde
of ugly tourists as he left the others. In the
old days there were few white
watchers along with the old professional
Indian lovers. Now it had turned
into a carnival. He stepped up to the
red, white, and blue concession
stand and ordered an ice cream cone
—a double-dip strawberry.
Poem by Fritz Scholder.
"Super Indian" is arranged thematically. You highlight his early Indian series, psychological portraitures, and works that examine American Indian stereotypes -- such as "Super Indian No. 2." There's also a section devoted to "Native pop." What's that?
Pop art, if you think of the artist Andy Warhol, you have a lot of bright colors, a lot of kind of mechanical reproduction images or iterations of things. You're also drawing from popular culture. But the reality is, when people say pop art, what they usually mean is white American culture. Because soup cans [like from the famous Warhol piece] are not necessarily pop culture for everyone. There are forms of popular culture for Native people that maybe are not the same as what would be in white American pop culture. Scholder kind of blended the two. The term Native pop didn't exist when he did this. It's more of a recent term. But there's quite a few Native artists who explore this idea now.
Get a behind the scenes look at "Super Indian" at the Denver Art Museum: