Paul Chaat Smith

Monster Love

Monster Love

Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian

The Indians were a small part of my career, a series that seemed logical at the time. But an artist has to transcend a subject, or he loses the battle. The subject wins.1

In the summer of 1994, news that Fritz Scholder was returning to Santa Fe with a show of new work, specifically a show of new work featuring Indians, produced a frisson of shock, delight, and nostalgia in the small city he had left two decades earlier. “Red Alert,” the headlines read, “The man is back.”2

His absence all those years had only clarified his standing as the region’s most celebrated artist, second only to Georgia O’Keeffe. He was gone, but you saw him everywhere: the Albuquerque airport, in the finest homes and museums and restaurants, on the walls of the dorm rooms and coffee shops, in the galleries of Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, and decorating tiny kitchens in trailer homes, used bookstores, and university libraries.

In most state capitals, politics is the main topic of conversation, but in Santa Fe artists are the celebrities, and nearly everyone has Fritz Scholder stories, and the thrilling, unexpected news—Fritz Scholder Is Painting Indians Again!—gave everyone a chance to tell them once more. You knew him personally, or used to, or knew someone who did, or you met him once at an opening, or you owned a lithograph or poster. The old-timers, who lived in the sleepy town before it was chic and expensive, held court and recounted scenes from those magical years in the 1960s when the zeitgeist ran through Santa Fe.

The local newspaper described it this way: “The years Scholder lived in Santa Fe are referred to by many as the most notable period of the city’s fabled art scene, a time roughly bounded by the Nixon years on one end and the rise of the Reagan presidency on the other. It was the final years of Santa Fe as an inexpensive haven for artists. In many ways, the most enduring art legacy of those years was the emergence of Scholder’s haunting, energetic paintings of American Indians. His creative genius laid a cornerstone in the foundation that made today’s flourishing Santa Fe arts scene possible.”2 The article ended with a quote from the artist about why he was returning to the subject that made him famous. Acknowledging that he had once declared he would never paint Indians again, he found that after thirteen years he had more to say after all. He allowed that he discovered something else, too: “I’ve learned that you should never hem yourself in by making pronouncements.”4

We should be grateful this was a lesson he only learned in his sixth decade. The extravagant, baffling, and still-consequential career of Fritz Scholder is framed by bold pronouncements, dichotomy, and contradiction. It is irresistible—and I surrender willingly—to treat them as one way of mapping the artist and making sense of his life and work.

Here’s the short list: the son of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school administrator, who vowed he would never work for the BIA, who later teaches at a BIA art school. The abstractionist who turns to figuration. The artist who (twice) broke his promise to never paint Indians and was rewarded with fame, wealth, and endless controversy. The public intellectual who gave speeches about the New Indian Art Movement, who also said he didn’t believe in making statements. The recluse who starred in nationally televised documentaries and willingly painted before audiences all over the world.

And, above all, this one: the man who revolutionized Indian painting, who also consistently, insistently, told everyone who would listen over five decades that he was not Indian. Except that he was proud of being one-quarter Luiseño. Except that perhaps he was a non-Indian Indian. As if trying to be helpful, Scholder also told us, over and over, that his favorite word was paradox. To which we can only say, no kidding.

Like many celebrities, Fritz Scholder always acted as if he were famous even before he became famous. No doubt this amused his family, but his talent, confidence, and single-mindedness gave them no reason to doubt he would succeed. He won his first contest in the fourth grade, and at nineteen made the local paper, hailed as a prodigy destined for great things. He posed with his painting, The Life Cycle of Man (1956).5

As only a child desperate to escape the remote and gloomy Northern Plains could, Fritz Scholder knew how immense the world was. This knowledge made him determined to explore and experience everything it had to offer. He dreamed of Egypt and the pyramids, collected stamps, and drew for hours. Eventually, Fritz Scholder’s imagination and his pen collapsed time and space, and as a famous artist he would travel the world and paint the pyramids.

It would have been remarkable anywhere, but in Fritz’s early years the Scholders lived in North Dakota border towns. During the brutal, unforgiving winters, they clung to ropes tied from house to barn to keep from blowing away into the night.

“We lived on the Indian school campus, because my father (who is half-Luiseño) worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But we went to public schools. There were no Indian objects in the house. We never thought of ourselves as Indians. My father was a product of the old Indian schools—he was ashamed of being an Indian.”6

In the 1940s and 1950s, he was hardly alone. It was, Fritz’s sister Sondra Scholder recalled, strange to be living among Indians their own age but to rarely see them. Fritz and Sondra attended public schools, not the BIA school where their father taught. It was never acknowledged or discussed. Scholder would describe his childhood as if Indians were far away and simply not a subject he or his family gave a moment’s thought. In fact, the Indians were all around them, and even the absence of Indian objects was a vivid reminder of that fact. “When my parents were married, they were given beautiful Indian baskets, rugs, and pottery, but in a couple of years my father threw them all away. I grew up with not one Indian object in the house, except for a pot my father gave me for my crayons.”7 In a Rosebud-like plot twist both too perfect to be true and too unlikely to be invented, as an adult Scholder would learn the black pot was made by the famous San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez.

He also would remember leafing through the pages of Arizona Highways, imagining what it would be like to live in the desert in a place where it was always warm. That memory was, in a way, like the account of the Martinez pot (and also perhaps less likely to be fictional) because it complicates the story of a family that never thought of themselves as Indians or had much to do with Indians. His father Fritz Scholder IV and Ella Mae Haney were married on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona, on horseback. Ella Mae knew Hopi artists like Fred Kabotie, and was a typist for Oliver La Farge, the anthropologist, activist, and novelist. Scholder and his sisters also visited their Luiseño relatives in California.8

While Fritz Scholder attended high school in Pierre, South Dakota, the art teacher happened to be Oscar Howe, one of the country’s most prominent Indian painters. Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux, talked at length about what he had seen in Europe, about how that had changed his work, and showed his student paintings executed in the cubist style.

All of this—the BIA schools that determined where the family lived, the visits to the Luiseño relatives, the mentoring by a well-known Indian artist—happened during the times that Fritz Scholder said he never considered himself Indian or thought about Indians. What do we make of this? Part of the answer is that people like the Scholders considered Indians to be from reservations. During the mid twentieth century, it wasn’t just the Bureau of Indian Affairs that believed Indians should be assimilated; it was also much of Indian Country. Concepts at the core of Indian values in the United States and Canada today—that traditional beliefs and practices must be preserved and continued, that languages and ceremonies should be protected at all costs, that being Indian is a good thing—were not the prevailing ideas back then. There were Indians in 1950 who argued and organized for these things, but they were a small minority even in the most conservative (what we called “traditional” in those days) reservations. People like Fritz Scholder’s father were not Indians, they were “half-breeds,” a term then commonly used in both derogatory and matter-of-fact, descriptive ways.

For Fritz Scholder and his sisters to say they never considered themselves Indian is another way of saying they had little in common with the students at their father’s school, which was true. Embedded in those definitions is the notion that there was nothing valuable in exploring or deepening their own knowledge of the Indians who their father administered, the Hopis their mother knew, or the Lakotas and Winnebagos who lived a few hours’ drive away.

This was especially true for the teenage artist, driven to become a famous artist—of what possible use could knowing Indians, much less being Indian, be in reaching that goal?

The answer would turn out to be everything, because Indians in the United States were on the cusp of a massive cultural shift that nobody predicted, and few would have believed possible.

The Scholders left the Northern Plains in 1957 for Sacramento. There, Fritz Scholder IV reported for a new assignment with the BIA, and Fritz Scholder V enrolled in art school.

A dozen years later, so much had changed the sun might as well have been rising in the west and setting in the east. As American astronauts walked on the moon, Fritz Scholder was becoming the most famous Indian artist in the country, and, in the unlikeliest turn of all, his father was recovering Luiseño songs and stories.9

The 1960s came to Indian Country late, but hit fast and hard. On the political front, a triptych of daring, failed rebellions began in the fall of 1969. They were impressive no matter who was behind them, but for Indians to be organizing them was positively shocking, especially to other Indians. A nighttime takeover of Alcatraz prison in California? Seizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., on the eve of a presidential election, brandishing Molotov cocktails and threatening to strike the match? Holding an entire town in South Dakota for two months against hundreds of federal troops?

It was the cultural revolution, however, that would prove more successful and long lasting. And that revolution was just beginning when Fritz Scholder arrived in Santa Fe in 1964 as the Advanced Painting instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA).

The years in Sacramento had been both rewarding and difficult. He studied under Wayne Thiebaud and became an abstract painter of considerable promise, yet there were lots of painters in California in the late 1950s, so to support himself, his wife, and newly arrived Fritz Scholder VI, the artist reluctantly found work as a substitute teacher by day and Department of Motor Vehicles clerk by night. He hated both jobs. One day in 1961, a letter arrived, inviting him to spend the summer in Arizona, all expenses paid. The Rockefeller Foundation’s Southwest Indian Art Project knew just two things about Fritz Scholder: that he was an enrolled member of the Luiseño tribe of Indians, and that he was an artist. It was an easy decision.

And the decision to join the Institute of American Indian Arts wasn’t much harder. True, IAIA was a BIA school, but it was a very special school, a showcase for a new kind of Indian policy. Scholder’s extensively documented journey from geeky abstractionist with tweed jacket, Steve Allen glasses, and tie—nailed perfectly by T. C. Cannon’s 1965 Instructor in Green (p. 29)—to subject of gushing newspaper articles that called him “the most famous Indian artist in the world” was unhurried, but it was under way and irreversible.

It would be three years before he finally painted his first Indian, an awkward, selfconscious work, executed nervously, as if he knew the whole world was watching, but the series improved rapidly. In 1969, Scholder created the astonishing Indian with Beer Can, easily the greatest and most influential painting in the history of Indian art.

Indian with Beer Can lives in that exclusive neighborhood of artwork that is described in sentences that invariably include the words “Before” and “After.” It was the visual equivalent of storming the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., or occupying Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, only darker and scarier. The picture blew a hole right through the viewer’s head, and the holes were different depending on who you were. For Sharon Blackwell, a young Navajo, the hole changed forever her idea of what art could be, and what it meant and suddenly could mean to be Indian. Her parents saw it differently, telling her that “your friend Fritz Scholder just set back the Navajo Nation fifty years.” To the traders in Santa Fe, it was an unspeakable travesty. It shocked everyone. Most Indians hated it, and nearly forty years later, many still do.

As demonstrated elsewhere in this volume, Scholder was not the only artist to paint distorted, Baconesque Indians, or even the first. He did possess advantages that set him apart from both his colleagues and his talented students. First, his exceptional drive and focus to succeed. Second, his real-world experience as a practicing artist, his considerable network, and his string of awards gave him the necessary tools to bring his work to a national stage.

All of this, I think, was according to plan. As he acknowledged during his years at IAIA, Scholder was deeply influenced by his surroundings. The Indian series was, in his words, “logical at the time.” It was not just any series; he plainly saw the power of the work and later coolly took credit for helping demolish the painting style promoted by Dorothy Dunn’s Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School. (“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.”10) But just as plainly, he believed Indians would merely be one of many subjects he would explore over his career.

That was not to be the case. As the Indian world changed, in some small but significant measure because of the extraordinary work he and IAIA students T. C. Cannon and Billy Soza Warsoldier and others were doing in Santa Fe, it is striking how little Fritz Scholder’s ideas about Indians changed.

With message discipline reminiscent of a successful political campaign, Scholder would explain, time and again, that he was not Indian, never said he was Indian, was not an Indian artist, and did not know what Indian art even was. He would explain that he was proud of being one-quarter Luiseño, but that he was also one-quarter French, one-quarter English, and one-quarter German. He did this in every decade of his life from the 1960s through interviews shortly before his death in 2005. His sentences would remain the same even as the very language itself changed: in 1996 he would say, “I’m very proud of being one-quarter Native American, as they call them now. It’s still an odd term. But, on the other hand, I never gave it much thought.”11

A typical feature article from 1979:

The paradox for the Indian consists of living in a culture within a culture, Scholder believes. “Most minorities have a homeland somewhere, a place that’s theirs. The Indian has a homeland that is possessed by another, dominant culture. This has, psychologically, very strange ramifications.” Scholder recognizes the paradox in himself, too.

“Here I am labeled Indian artist,” he says. “Yet you can’t really call anyone who is only one-fourth Indian and who grew up in a non-reservation environment an Indian.

“I went to non-Indian schools, and if I saw myself as different it was because I knew from the beginning that I wanted to paint.”

The visitor, talking to Scholder in the “Buffalo Room” of his north Scottsdale home, hidden from behind the road by mesquite and greasewood, may find it difficult to see the artist as non-Indian. The “Buffalo Room” itself reinforces the idea, with many Indian objects and artifacts. And then there’s Scholder, seated behind a fortress-like desk, caught in the beam of an overhead spotlight that casts his features, and long, black, shoulder-length hair into sharp relief.

When the master of irony next speaks, it serves only to heighten the paradox.

“I am terribly proud of my Indian heritage. But there is such a tremendous tendency to overlabel or oversimplify.”

He would prefer, he explains, to be called “an American painter. One of my major series happens to be on the American Indian, and I am one-quarter Indian, but if you look at the backgrounds of most Indian artists and myself you will find great differences between us.”12

On rare occasions he would speak of Indians in the first person. They would take place about as often as a solar eclipse. “Like every other Indian, I have to live in 1974.” Or at the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars held at Princeton University in 1970, where he used the phrase “our people.”

Most of the time, however, he would say, “I am not an Indian. I have never been an Indian. I am proud of that one-quarter of my heritage, but a person cannot be something he is only one-quarter of.” And, “I know almost every prominent Indian in this country and there is one great difference between them and me. Their whole life is lived in a dichotomy, a tug between their tradition and having to live in a non-Indian dominated society. A lot play it very cool, but let me tell you, they HATE it. I don’t have any of those feelings. I didn’t grow up Indian.”13

Or, as he told People magazine in 1977, “I’m no more an Indian artist than the man in the moon.” Or this, from his monograph published by Rizzoli: “I am a non-Indian Indian. I do not feel the pull of the dichotomy of two cultures. However, I am aware of the incongruous nature of the two cultures.”

Two days before the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the village of Wounded Knee in February 1973, he sounded angrier and more spontaneous—off message— as he riffed about monsters and Indians: “People don’t really like Indians. Oh, they like their own conceptions of the Indian—usually the Plains Indian, romantic and noble and handsome and somehow the embodiment of wisdom and patience. But Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system, living in uncomfortable surroundings. We have really been viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society. The Indian of reality is a paradox—a monster to himself and a non-person to society.”14

Scholder was always hostile to the radicals of AIM, and annoyed that many assumed he was the Minister of Culture for the Indian Revolution. “I don’t dig Red Power and I don’t identify with protest Indian art. I just say let’s find what the American Indian is and what he stands for. To me, he is dignified, non-militant and sensitive.”15

But the bottom line for many who find his statements artfully disingenuous is that it was the Indian paintings that made him rich and famous, not his abstracted landscapes or his mystery women. Even Scholder would concede this, sometimes: “Before I started painting Indians, I had to stretch my own canvases. By the time I finished with that, a day was gone and I was afraid to put my paint on it because I might ruin the canvas and have to start over. Now, I have two assistants who stretch my canvases and clean my brushes. It leaves me all my time to create.”16

What of the larger dream of a new Indian art that would take the world by storm? It would fall to Jamake Highwater, a curious figure who once upon a time was Indian, and then was not, to write the postmortem. He had other lives, with different names and different ancestry. His standing in Native discourse is negligible today, and citing him here is emphatically not an effort to change that. However, his reading of what happened to the New Indian Art Movement is instructive:

J. J. Brody (1971) saw the heyday of the IAIA as the era in which Indian painting died and the Indian painter was born. Scholder was held up by Brody as the consummate example of this transition; and of course, there was much truth—from the perspective of 1970—in Brody’s observation. Scholder opened the door for modernist Indian art, and for about ten years he was the only artist to find acceptance in the mainstream art world. But, from the vantage of the 1980s, it is now sadly clear that Scholder’s impact was far less than we had anticipated. Lavish advertisements announcing his various exhibitions spread across page upon page of the best national art publications, but few serious in-depth critiques of his work have appeared, in comparison with the number published about non-Indian artists of his standing. In the insular and Indianist Southwest, in the trend-oriented galleries of Los Angeles and San Francisco, even in some of the showplaces of Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Paris, Scholder’s work has received recognition. But as Scholder himself fully admits, the East Coast museums have very largely ignored his achievements. And today Scholder (along with the most sophisticated Indian artists who identify with Indian subject matter) fully realizes that the potential for true international success of Indian art is very limited and problematical. Most of the Indian artists who have had some degree of public recognition as producers of Indian art are now trying, like Scholder himself, to get out of the field as quickly and quietly as possible. And most of the artists of Indian heritage who have been accepted in the international world of art (Leon Polk Smith, James Havard, George Morrison, and others) pursue their careers with little or no public emphasis upon their ethnicity.

In 1985, it is apparent to anyone who works as an art critic in New York City that Indian art has almost no chance of making an impact on the booming cosmopolitan art market; that it is very unlikely that anything called “Indian art” will soon be exhibited by the reigning international entrepreneurs of contemporary art; or that at this moment in time the Indian artist has any hope of altering the emphatic indifference of the powerful East Coast clique of contemporary art promoters, critics, and exhibitors.... There is, for instance, not a single fine arts museum of significance in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C., that currently has a single painting or sculpture by an American Indian on permanent exhibition. In talking to urbane writers, I have found that there is real doubt that any Indian has produced art of the first rank.17

Twenty years later, those problems still remain.

For me, Scholder’s legacy is two things: an incredibly generous gift of a new way of seeing our circumstances without the blinkered lens of art made in the interests of tourism and pacification, and a life lived in opposition to the prevailing sentiments that offered easy answers to complicated issues. It would have been so easy for Scholder to declare himself, finally, an Indian, to become Luiseño or Hopi or Sioux, and he never did. In 2008, as the diversity and authenticity discourses exhaust themselves into irrelevance, Scholder’s weirdly stubborn formulas are fresh and remarkably on point.

Others at IAIA painted grotesque, distorted Indians first. But nobody else’s Indians haunted viewers the way Scholder’s did, and that’s the reason we’re still arguing over him today. His paintings did what great art sometimes does: unleash forces far beyond what the artist intends.

But I do think this about Fritz Scholder: he was an Indian project. For every way he benefited from us, we benefited even more. The Indian world, in the mysterious ways we accomplish these things, recognized his rare talent and understood its value in letting us see the world in a new way, and thus to change our circumstances. We chose him, even more than he chose us.

I respect that Scholder, even knowing it was all but useless, never gave in to others’ definitions of who he was. He remains a complex, troubling, inspiring, and towering figure whose eerie paintings of the human—and the Indian—condition have power, even if they no longer shock. He lived a strange kind of Indian life, yet in some ways it was a classic twentieth-century Indian life.

The master narrative that rules the North American Indian world, like all master narratives, has little patience with nuance, so it called for his life story to end with an emotional reconnection with the Luiseños, for him to stop talking about being only a quarter Luiseño, and to finally speak of Indians in the first person instead of the third. That he would not do. He was stubborn to the end, true to himself and his work—and to the confounding paradoxes that framed his life and enriched ours.


    1. Ed Montini, “Four Sides of Fritz,” Arizona Republic, February 22, 1981. 2. John Villani, “Red Alert,” Santa Fe New Mexican, August 5, 1994. 3. Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. Donald Lindsey, “Fritz Scholder: An Outstanding Artist,” The Peptomist, November 30, 1956. 6. Winke Self, “Cutting Through Indian Romanticism,” San Diego 24:9 (1972): 41–42. 7. Piri Halasz, “Fritz Scholder’s Indian Paradoxes,” ARTnews, October 1974. 8. Ibid. 9. Mary Daniels, “A Unique Reflection of the Indian Experience,” Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1976. 10. Lisa Sherman, “Fritz Scholder: The Figure in Flux,” Artlines, January 1981. 11. Daniel Vaillancourt, “Fritz Scholder Living Each Day as Adventure, Freedom to Explore, Experiment,” Santa Fe New Mexican, July 26, 1996. 12. Barbara Perlman, “Scholder Sets the Indian Art World on Its Ear—Again!” Scottsdale Daily Progress, March 30, 1979. 13. Montini, “Four Sides of Fritz.” 14. Lynne B. Waugh, “The Artistry of the Indian,” Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1973. 15. “Young Indians ‘Dig’ Fritz Scholder’s Art,” Arizona Republic, March 8, 1971. 16. Paul Perry, “Fritz Scholder: A Non-Indian Artist and His Indian Art,” Scottsdale Daily Progress, February 20, 1976. 17. Jamake Highwater, “Controversy in Native American Art,” in Edwin L. Wade, ed., The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution (New York and Tulsa: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Philbrook Arts Center, 1986).

The author dedicates this essay to the memory of Joseph Bedford Proctor/Red Flame Tayac (1928–2004).

Paul Chaat Smith