January 2009

Fritz Scholder

National Museum of the American Indian

Washington, D.C.

In the 1960s, Fritz Scholder’s paintings – such as the image in this show of a man sitting at a table with a beer can at his elbow – broke so thoroughly with the hackneyed, romantic vision of the American Indian that much of the public, including Native Americans, recoiled. One of the virtues of this sprawling career retrospective is that it shows how even at that time of unprecedented upheaval in American art and society, there were still taboos to skewer.

Born in Minnesota, Scholder (1937-2005), who was one-quarter Luiseño Indian, evoked the pathologies and anxieties of the contemporary American Indian with brutal honesty and a keen sense of the expressive possibilities of color. Although drawing on Goya, Munch, and Francis Bacon, he was also able to create an original esthetic. That picture of the man with his drink, Indian with Beer Can (1969), is still arresting, not so much for the beer can and what it says about alcoholism, but for the man’s face, which looks like part of a desiccated animal carcass. The catalogue quotes Scholder as saying, “The Indian . . . is a monster to himself and a non-person to society.” He illustrates this point in Super Indian No. 2 (1971), in which a dancer in buffalo skin, complete with horns and hooves, incongruously holds an ice cream cone.

Scholder trained with and was influenced by Wayne Thiebaud and other Bay Area Pop art painters before establishing himself at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he did his most influential work. In later years, with mortality bearing down on him, he painted a series of skulls, using a mix of his own blood and Diet Coke on hotel notepaper – a final, riveting statement on the transience of life.

An exhibition focused on paintings from late in Scholder’s career is on view at the museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York through May 17.

–Roger Atwood