Why Fritz Scholder Was One of Few Native Artists to Break into the American Mainstream

Andrew Gardner
Dec 18, 2017 6:43PM

Often dismissed by art historians as folk art, the artistic traditions of Native Americans have always played second fiddle to the more dominant Western traditions of painting and sculpture. Even today, when questions of identity, citizenship, and sovereignty play out daily in the national conversation, there is an astonishing lack of representation of Native arts in major museum collections around the country.

In 2015, when the new Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new location in Lower Manhattan, the inaugural exhibition, titled “America is Hard to See,” notably included only two artists who claim Native ancestry: Jimmie Durham and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. That one of the two artists who fall into this categorical designation is not officially a registered member of any tribe, despite his longstanding claims to Cherokee heritage (Durham), and the other is of mixed African-American and Native American ancestry (Prophet), is an indication of the magnitude of the problem.

It is through this lens that one must view the work of Fritz Scholder (1937–2005), a leading, if controversial, member of the New American Indian Art movement of the 1970s known for his bright paintings of Native Americans and other subject matter, sometimes portrayed in a Pop or Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. He is one of few Native artists in the 20th century to have achieved widespread recognition in the mainstream American art world.


Scholder was born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, and his paternal grandmother was a member of the Luiseño tribe, whose members were once brought to work on Southern California’s missions. “My father learned to be ashamed of his heritage when he attended Indian schools and he accepted, without rancor, to live as a White,” Scholder wrote in an article that he published in 1973. “That is what he wanted for his children and that is why he sent us to White schools.”

First trained at Wisconsin State University, it was by “a great stroke of luck” that Scholder and his family moved to California, where he enrolled at Sacramento City College. Working with Wayne Thiebaud, a painter renowned for his colorful depictions of everyday objects, Scholder found a natural mentor. Thiebaud introduced  Scholder to the bold brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism and bright colors of Pop Art, the dominant styles of painting in this period. After completing his B.A. degree at California State University, Sacramento, Scholder enrolled at the University of Arizona, where he received his M.A. in 1964.

Upon graduation, Scholder made his way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had accepted a teaching position at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), an art school established in 1962 to train a new generation of Native artists. “The New Indians know they must become educated, in order both to function in White Society and to comprehend fully the exciting rich Indian culture of the past,” Scholder wrote in that same 1973 article, just a few years after leaving the school in 1969. “The Indians’ lot since the coming of Europeans to America has been very distressing.”

Scholder took his role as a mentor to young artists seriously, notably training the Native American painter T.C. Cannon. But it was the development of his own painting style in the five years he spent at the IAIA that catapulted Scholder to national fame. Though he had once vowed never to paint a Native American figure, dismissing such depictions as cliché, in 1967, Scholder broke his own rule.

Indian No. 1 (1967), the first in what would become known as the artist’s “Indian Series,” (1967–80), portrayed a lone male figure with a feather in his hair, a large beaded necklace, and the word “Indian” stenciled in the upper righthand corner. It was a radical gesture, one that depicted contemporary Native identity as the artist saw it, using an artistic form—in this case, painting—that was strongly rooted in a European-American art tradition.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2005 upon the occasion of Scholder’s death in 2005, Frank Goodyear, then the director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, told the L.A. Times that the artist’s “Indian Series” “forever broke the mold of what Indian painting had been.”

Stylistically, Scholder’s Indians took cues from the work of painters that he had studied with Thiebaud. Perhaps most important among these was Francis Bacon. Edward Lucie-Smith, the British writer and art critic, wrote in a 1993 catalogue essay for a survey of Scholder’s work that for both artists, “the image itself seems to be in a state of transition, slipping from one mood or state to another.” Indeed, Scholder’s depictions of American Indians vacillate between the perception of tradition and the reality of contemporary society.

“…[M]y work startled many people because I, part-Indian, treated the Indian differently, not as the ‘noble savage’ endlessly portrayed by White painters, and also because my technique was non-Indian,” Scholder wrote. “I felt it to be a compliment when I was told that I had destroyed the traditional style of Indian art, for I was doing what I thought had to be done.”

The artist worked on his “Indian Series” for over a decade, juxtaposing artifacts of “white society” with portraits of tribal life as he saw it. Some, like Indian with a Beer Can from 1969, address the scourge of alcoholism that continues to afflict many Native communities today.

Others convey more irreverent observations from Scholder’s lived experience, like Super Indian No. 2 from 1971, which depicts a seated figure with a buffalo headdress and a pink ice cream cone. “I wanted to depict the strange paradox of a deeply religious animal dancer, whose dancing tradition goes back hundreds of years, eating ice cream bought at a White man’s food concession in Pueblo grounds,” Scholder said.

Though his subject matter proved appealing to an international set of collectors and curators, it is Scholder’s bold use of color that is perhaps his greatest achievement. “One color by itself is pretty blah. I don’t care what color you take,” Scholder said in an archival interview excerpted in the catalogue for the 2015–16 show “Super Indian” at the Denver Art Museum. “It’s when you put the second color next to the first color that, then things start to happen, and you get vibrations, you get, when you get purple next to an orange, things are going to happen.”

Scholder’s work was not without controversy. His harrowing depictions of violence against Native Americans (as in Dead Indian in Gallup, 1973) were deeply unsettling portraits of life on reservations. And for some Native artists, his vision for the future of Native American art was a narrow one, one in which Scholder dismissed traditional media like beadwork as “flat and decorative” in favor of painting and printmaking.

He had, by many accounts, taken up the cause of non-Native art, sacrificing the very artistic media that were and continue to be intrinsic to the life of many Native communities.

Still, his work had a profound impact on a generation of young Native artists, which in turn upended European-American expectations about what being Native American in contemporary society looked like.

As Paul Chaat Smith, an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City and co-curator of a 2008 survey of the artist’s work, “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian,” writes: “Scholder’s stubborn refusal to deny his English, French, and German ancestry baffled us back in the 20th century, but it sure looks prescient today, as everyone’s extended Indian family looks like the UN General Assembly, and our first Black president never lets us forget his white mother from Kansas.”

Scholder would never go on to achieve the same success after he discontinued his “Indian Series” in 1980. But his visibility in the art-historical canon opened a door for younger Native artists—the presence of which we need to see much more of in major museum collections around the country.

Andrew Gardner