Treasures from the Vault: Fritz Scholder

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, Fritz Scholder’s family moved around to North Dakota, South Dakota, and different parts of Wisconsin before finally settling in Sacramento, CA. His father, who was part Luiseño or Payómkawichum, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a school administrator; despite this, Scholder attended public schools. During his high school years in Pierre, South Dakota, Oscar Howe (Yanktonai), who was an accomplished painter and art teacher, inspired Scholder to become a painter.   

Scholder received a taste of art training through a University of Kansas summer camp, building upon it during a one year stay at Wisconsin State University-Superior that was influenced by the curriculum of the Bauhaus. At Sacramento City College he studied under Wayne Thiebaud, from whom he absorbed Abstract Expressionism and Pop art ideas. The young artist was also taken with Bay Area abstract figuration painters Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn.   

In the 1960s, Scholder received attention for his striped abstractions that faintly allude to the land. Thiebaud arranged for Scholder’s first one-person show at the school’s art gallery. In 1961, Scholder received a full scholarship to participate in the Southwest Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona, where he later received his MFA.   

From 1964 to 1969 Scholder taught Advanced Painting and Art History at the newly established Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He introduced his students to the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Francis Bacon, a favorite for his evocative use of color. It was a two-way street; as many of the students inspired Scholder in turn with their fresh depictions of Native Americans, incorporated elements of Pop art into their compositions.   

Curator Paul Chaat Smith remembers Scholder referring to himself as a “non-Indian Indian.” This speaks to the complexity of history as well as the artist’s sense of identity. Society and government policies had pushed for assimilation, and the artist noted that his father initially felt shame in his heritage; later, however, he became interested in tribal history. Scholder did not grow up socializing with many Native Americans nor had cultural objects in the household. Today, people recognize the importance of preserving and taking pride in traditional beliefs, practices, languages, and customs; however, this was not widely advocated back then.  

Scholder had recalled, “Upon my arrival in Santa Fe in 1964, I vowed that I would not paint the Indian. The non-Indian had painted the subject as a noble savage and the Indian painter had been caught in a tourist-pleasing cliché.”i  Despite this firm statement, from 1967 through 1972 the artist created 300 paintings of Native Americans, often based on historical photographs and ones the artist shot himself. Beginning with Indian No. 1 in 1967, he moved past stereotypes and romanticized visions of the past and instead presented Native Americans engaged in ordinary activities from contemporary life. Indian with Beer Can (1969), Drunk Indian No. 2 (1972), and Massacre at Wounded Knee No. 1 (1970) offered a new realism that hit a nerve for some due to its frank subject matter, with references to alcoholism and past injustices in American history. The works clearly diverged from expectations stylistically as they reflected the current trends in the art scene. His paintings and prints depicted abstracted figures with exaggerated facial features set against vivid planes of color.   

The three prints by Scholder in the FWMoA permanent collection were created at Tamarind Institute. Tamarind was an early leader in the printmaking field for promoting lithography. As a printmaking workshop, artists work with master printers who help them, as artists with varying levels of printmaking knowledge, to bring their ideas to fruition. Tamarind relocated to Albuquerque, NM in 1970, which boasted a diverse artist community. Scholder’s introduction to lithography at Sacramento State College had been dismal, and he quickly accepted Tamarind’s invitation and became their first artist from New Mexico. This fourteen-year relationship yielded over 90 editioned prints.   

Bicentennial Indian is among several works in which Scholder presented Native Americans clothed in the American flag. The flat yellow ochre background sets off the imposing sitter who gazes directly at the viewer. The formal pose and the solidity of the subject’s body contrasts with the flowing fabric of an abstracted U.S. flag. The artist characteristically used a single figure, keeping his composition simple with a one-color background. Scholder considered himself a colorist, which is evident through his love of color relationships.   

A Native American, in traditional dress, sits upon a European, high-backed chair with the American flag draped across his lap. He holds a feather in one hand. The background is a yellow-ochre, contrasting with the blues and reds of the flag.
Fritz Scholder, American, 1937-2005. Bicentennial Indian from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence. Lithograph, 1974. Gift of the Lorillard Co., 1976.05.12. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Honoring the country’s 200th anniversary, Lorillard Company commissioned Scholder and eleven other prominent American artists to create a work that answered the question: What does freedom mean to you? Was using the American flag a political statement, given the U.S. government’s long history of removal and unjust treatment of Native Americans?  

Scholder recounted, “’People have called this a kind of political commentary, whereas in reality it was simply a common sight in the late 1800s. The commissaries on the different reservations were sent surplus supplies of American flags—for no-one-knows-what reason—that’s the way the government works. Anyway, they gave the flags out to the Indians, who immediately realized that they could be used as a decorative part of their costuming. It wasn’t because they were patriotic. They had a design sense long before the hippies.’”ii 

Although Scholder refuted making a political statement, he enjoyed paradoxes and contradictions. Like Pop artists Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, Scholder borrowed from photographic images. He commented, “If a Pop artist is one who is challenging clichés, then, in a way, I must be one, because the American Indian has become the biggest of clichés.”iii The Smithsonian Institution had provided the Institute for American Indian Art with access to historical photographs of Native Americans. Bicentennial Indian’s source may have been studio photographer Charles Milton Bell’s documentation of the 1880 Crow Peace Delegation that came to Washington, D.C. Scholder included details from Chief Medicine Crow’s traditional regalia, including the hair bow, conch shells, ermine, and eagle feather fan. Yet, these features feel at odds with the European-style upholstered chair. The diplomatic meeting led to the surrendering of tribal land to the U.S. government.   

By adding the U.S. flag to the composition, Scholder added another layer of meaning and irony to the work. It becomes a poignant reminder of how Native Americans were treated as obstacles in the country’s policies on westward expansion grounded in Manifest Destiny ideology. The flag is a rich symbol and can have associations with political protection, as a battle emblem, gifts at treaty negotiations, and an embodiment of patriotism. In the 1960s and 1970s, the flag would have held special meaning as Native Americans served in the Vietnam War. Yet, many were participating in civil rights protests and occupations during the American Indian Movement. 

Scholder created Anpao Buffalo and Anpao Death as part of a suite of prints that also included an owl and a bat, all starkly set against a black background. The artist brushed on liquid tusche to give the prints textured tonal washes. The four prints were used in the book Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey by Jamake Highwater, which received a Newberry Honor Award.iv  Scholder did not conceive them as literal illustrations to the story, describing them as “mysterious and magical subjects.”v Scholder went on to publish limited edition books under his own Apocrypha Press after collaborating on a book with fellow artist Leonard Baskin at Gehenna Press. 

Scholder has been the subject of two documentaries and has received several honorary doctorates. His work is included in the collections of various major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Heard Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian Art Museum. 

i Leslie Wasserberger, “American Expressionist,” in Lowery Stokes Sims, ed. Fritz Scholder: Indian not Indian (Washington and New York: National Museum of the American Indian; Munich: Prestel, 2008), p. 39.

ii Ibid., p. 32. 

iii Clinton Adams, Fritz Scholder: Lithographs (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), p. 19. 

iv Jamake Highwater was a prolific writer especially on Native American topics. Adopted and known as Jackie Marks, Highwater later claimed Native American heritage after learning more about his biological parents, but this was disputed in two different published claims. 

v Jamake Highwater, Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1977), p. 256. 

Adams, Clinton. Fritz Scholder: Lithographs. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975. 

Scholder, Fritz. “On the Work of a Contemporary American Indian Painter.” Leonardo 6, no. 2 (Spring 1973): 109-112. 

Sims, Lowery Stokes. Fritz Scholder: Indian not Indian. Washington and New York: National Museum of the American Indian; Munich: Prestel, 2008. 

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