Review: Super Indian Brings Back Contemporary Southwestern Art

Fritz Scholder’s “American Portrait With One Eye,” acrylic on canvas.
Fritz Scholder’s “American Portrait With One Eye,” acrylic on canvas.

It was a generation ago, in the ’70s and ’80s, that the art of the Southwest — New Mexico, specifically — got hot. This led to a reassessment of the historic artists of Taos and Santa Fe and bolstered the careers of several contemporary artists working in that part of the country. None of that latter group benefited more from the craze than Fritz Scholder, whose work, especially his prints, sold like hotcakes. But in the ’90s, things started to change. Those historic artists became firmly entrenched in American art history, but the contemporary ones, like Scholder, fell out of favor. The so-called Southwestern style became increasingly degraded, encompassing junk like turquoise-colored coyote figurines and “genuine Navajo” light-switch plates (which I actually saw!). When the Southwestern craze waned, the change in taste took out not just the junk, but the serious stuff, too, like Scholder’s paintings.

So Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967-1980, now at the Denver Art Museum, is a step toward the rehabilitation of the artist’s reputation — and it goes a long way in accomplishing that. The initial impetus for the show was the promised gift to the DAM of nine major works from mega-collector/donors Kent and Vicki Logan, who, once the show went up, decided to donate a tenth, as well. These gifts are supplemented by thirty other pieces from the DAM’s own collection and from various other lenders.

Curated by John Lukavic, of the DAM’s Native Arts department, Super Indian reveals that Scholder’s work was utterly timely, perfectly reconciling various seemingly antithetical currents in the contemporary-art world of his day with influences ranging from pop art to neo-expressionism, plus lots of other currents that lie in between. Lukavic spent the past two years working on this show, steeping himself not only in Scholder’s oeuvre, but also in modern and contemporary figuration and abstraction, because the artist pulled from these rival realms, both formally and in terms of technique. Then, of course, there were those solid traditions in Native American art, which Scholder both played up and played against.

Fritz Scholder, "Indian at the Lake," from 1977, lithograph.EXPAND
Fritz Scholder, "Indian at the Lake," from 1977, lithograph.

I had thought of Scholder as being the first artist to cross contemporary art with American Indian art, but Lukavic pointed out that the artist’s high-school art teacher, Oscar Howe, was doing that same thing as early as the 1930s. However, it’s true that Scholder was the first to break through in a big way nationally. In the show’s catalogue, Lukavic quotes writer and curator Aleta M. Ringlero as saying that American Indian art can be divided into “before Fritz and after Fritz,” which indicates the level of impact that he had.

As revealed by his early mentoring by Howe, Scholder was interested in art from an early age, and his training was extensive; he worked with many important teachers and participated in many prestigious programs. Most notable is his early association with Wayne Thiebaud; Scholder was just twenty when he began working with him in California in 1957. Thiebaud was an artist who anticipated pop art in his abstracted views of ordinary things like cakes or pies, and he directly connects Scholder to the West Coast figural-abstraction scene.

Scholder found success in the work he did at this time, and in 1961, after earning a BFA at Sacramento State University, he was invited to participate in the Rockefeller Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona, where he received his MFA three years later and began to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Then, as now, Santa Fe was the place to see the collision of traditional Native American art and the contemporary art being done by American Indians. Scholder was disappointed in the quality of the newer material, including that of his students. In response, he created his own versions of contemporary American Indian art, even though he had vowed never to paint Indian subjects. Even stranger, he claimed not to be Indian at all, though he was an enrolled member of the Luiseño tribe.

All of this background brings us to the doorstep of Super Indian at the DAM, which looks at the Indian-themed paintings Scholder did between 1967 and 1980. Between 1980 and 2005, when Scholder died, his themes and palettes got darker and his popularity among collectors and curators declined, so the work that Lukavic chose for this exhibit represents most of the high points of his career.

Fritz Scholder's "Super Indian No. 2," from 1971, oil paint on canvas.EXPAND
Fritz Scholder's "Super Indian No. 2," from 1971, oil paint on canvas.
Denver Art Museum

As I walked through the show with Lukavic, he explained how Scholder often appropriated compositions from historic sources, including photographs, paintings and even sculptures of Indians dating to the nineteenth century. This explains the artist’s classic, somewhat symmetrical formal arrangements seen in works such as “Insane Indian No. 26,” “American Portrait With One Eye” or “Super Indian No. 2.”

That last painting, from which the show takes its title, is a masterpiece. In it, a seated buffalo dancer in full regalia — including a headdress complete with fur and horns — is captured straight on. Look closely, though, and you’ll notice something strange: He’s holding a pink ice cream cone in one hand. Scholder said very little about his work, but he did explain that the buffalo dancer with the ice cream cone was something he’d actually seen during a break in the performance of a dance he attended. But taking something mundane and playing it up harks back to Thiebaud’s influence.

Fritz Scholder, "Massacre in America: Wounded Knee," 1972. Oil paint on canvas.
Fritz Scholder, "Massacre in America: Wounded Knee," 1972. Oil paint on canvas.
Denver Art Museum

More surprising is Scholder’s interest in responding to the neo-surrealism of Francis Bacon. This is sometimes seen in his handling of the faces of his subjects, the details of which are unreadable, but he also uses it to convey the body. That’s what he’s done in the disturbing “Massacre in America: Wounded Knee,” which evokes images of the Holocaust with a mass grave in the foreground. (Though Scholder eschewed politics, his work is nonetheless part of the broader Native American civil-rights movement of his time, Lukavic says, as exemplified by the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, the subject of this painting.)

Scholder, like his mentor Thiebaud, addressed representational imagery in an abstract way. Not only was he interested in taking the figure and abstracting it, but his painterly techniques and approaches were also those associated with abstraction. When you look at his paintings, it’s striking to note how economical his depictions are, as though he were able to use the least amount of formal elements needed to convey a subject. Smears, drips, paint-outs and color fields, among other devices, are orchestrated by Scholder so that the various painterly passages resolve into the intended image of a figure or figures. Yet it’s easy to see that had he made a slight change here or there, most of them could have come out as examples of non-objective rather than figural abstraction.

It’s important to point out that this approach is now nearly ubiquitous among contemporary figural abstractionists. But when Scholder started to do it, he was one of a very few artists who took the distinctively different tack.

Count me among those who had previously thought that Scholder was no longer worth considering. After taking in Super Indian, however, I realized I was wrong. Scholder wasn’t just a great painter; he was also an art activist who changed the public perception of what American Indian art could be.

Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967-1980
Through January 17 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.

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100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway
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