Fritz Scholder, 67; His Creations Redefined American Indian Art

Times Staff Writer

Fritz Scholder, an artist who combined his own bold expressionist style with vivid imagery from his Native American heritage to give striking contemporary meaning to “Indian art,” has died. He was 67.

Scholder, who had diabetes and pneumonia, died Thursday in Scottsdale, Ariz.

His “Indian No. 1” in 1967 set him on his “Indian series” course that lasted through the 1970s, resulted in more than 300 paintings and, in the words of Frank Goodyear, director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, “forever broke the mold of what Indian painting had been.”


Ironically, the artist credited with reinventing and reinvigorating Indian art always described himself as “a non-Indian Indian,” and was so disdainful of stereotype portraits of “noble savages” and sentimental images painted for tourists that he originally vowed never to paint an Indian.

He chose instead to concentrate on abstract landscapes. But he changed his mind while teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and became determined to depict modern Indians coping with complex contemporary society, or to show them in his words as “real, not red.”

Scholder’s “Super Indian No. 2” in 1971 shows a seated man wearing a buffalo headdress, beads and loincloth and eating a strawberry ice cream cone. His “Bicentennial Indian” in 1974 shows an Indian draped in an American flag.

The artist, who created his own catalogs, explained that he actually saw the first subject complete a ritual buffalo dance for tourists and then buy the ice cream. The second image was based on historic photos of 19th century Indians in prisons who were given surplus flags to wear after their tribal clothing was confiscated.

Similarly, Scholder’s 1971 “Indians With Umbrellas” shows a row of Indians riding horses and incongruously carrying umbrellas, and his poignant 1969 “Indian With Beer Can” evokes the problem of alcoholism on reservations.

Scholder’s irreverent Pop art portrayals were considered somewhat paradoxical. He was seen by many as forging “the new American Indian art” but by others as “messing up” what Indian art had always been and even demeaning Indians.

A 1997 PBS documentary about Scholder’s art was titled “Painting the Paradox.”

The restless artist, who never thought of himself as an “Indian artist” or a “Southwestern artist,” traveled widely, observing, studying and incorporating into his ever-changing art the information and artifacts he collected from such places as Egypt and Transylvania.

“One finds that whatever you become known for, you have to spend the rest of your life fighting against,” he told the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1996, explaining his moving on from “Indian art” to other topics.

“The media like to grab you and put some kind of label on you, and that’s it. It’s really very unfair for any artist who is interested in continually developing and finding out what he is doing.”

Scholder went on to paint series that he titled “Mystery Woman,” “Monster Love,” “Dream Horse,” “Martyr,” “Shaman” and later, influenced by Georgia O’Keeffe, a series on flowers.

A Los Angeles Times art writer reviewing a 1989 exhibit from the “Mystery Woman” series at the Marilyn Butler Gallery in Santa Monica called Scholder’s painting “easy-to-swallow realism.”

“Detractors cry ‘trendiness,’ ” she added, “but these works have an exoticism and urgency which indicate an artist painting not solely for commerce.”

Scholder’s works are included in collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Phoenix’s Heard Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum, the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Bibliotheque Nacionale in Paris.

Although best known for his painting and printmaking, Scholder also sculpted, printed books, created posters and post cards, and made photographs.

Born in Breckenridge, Minn., Fritz William Scholder V was of principally German ancestry but was one-quarter Native American (his paternal grandmother was from the Luiseno tribe of the Southern California Mission Indians). He grew up in small towns in Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota, where he began drawing as a child.

The artist delved into Modern and Pop art styles while studying at Sacramento City College with Wayne Thiebaud, and then earning a bachelor of arts degree at Cal State Sacramento.

After earning a master of fine arts degree as part of the Rockefeller Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona, he taught for five years at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Scholder was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Letters in 1977, and received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement in 1985. He also earned fellowships from the Ford, Rockefeller and Whitney foundations.

He is survived by his wife, Lisa; a son from an earlier marriage, Fritz VI, of Tampa, Fla.; two sisters, Sondra Clark of Los Altos, Calif., and Kristina Anderson of San Leandro, Calif.; and a grandson.

A memorial service is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Heard Museum.