Indians Ad Infinitum – the Conceptual Legacy of Fritz Scholder

Fritz Scholder, Indian at the Bar, 1971

Fritz Scholder, Indian at the Bar, 1971

Fritz Scholder  (1937-2005) was a renowned and widely exhibited painter. He was part Luiseno Indian and his paintings frequently depicted Native men and women. He studied painting under Wayne Thiebaud in California in the late 1950s, taught briefly at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe in the late 1960s, and enjoyed a prominent career as an international artist. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian mounted a retrospective exhibition of Scholder’s work and published a catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition, titled Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian. The catalogue has a good, literal interpretation of Fritz Scholder’s legacy as an artist. I decided that a more conceptual tracing of Scholder’s legacy might be useful. This is it:

What is the legacy of Fritz Scholder? With an artist with such a varied career could there be multiple legacies and is legacy even an appropriate term? Some of the issues that Fritz Scholder dealt with during his career are issues that Native artists today still deal with. This paper does not deal so much with artists emulating Scholder’s artistic style, as with the means by which other artists have approached issues that Scholder faced and dealt with, both in terms of negotiating one’s role as an artist, and in terms of content, including self-representation.

Dealing with Scholder’s “legacy” in a conventional art historical manner is to create a master narrative of artistic progression with Scholder as the originating point.  In the practice of art history in general, the artist as a visionary genius is a narrative with less and less utility. Each story winds up essentially the same: precocious young artist has his genius recognized at an early age, breaks with artistic tradition, passes his methods on to students and spawns an influential new artistic movement with substantive longevity. It is possible to make Scholder’s career fit this model, and there may be some benefit to doing so. Such an analysis might break through one more barrier between the world of high art and the world of “Indian art.” However, I plan to leave that task for someone else to undertake.

That said, is it possible to construct a legacy for Fritz Scholder that is not an accounting of the artists he’s taught, the artists he influenced, the artists who emulate him? The legacy I plan to trace today is a perhaps more rightly described as the legacy of an idea, the legacy of an idea that spread, grew, morphed, and spurred more ideas.

So what is this idea I’m constructing into a narrative?  I would argue that Scholder’s work helped take us beyond the idea that “Indians are Forever,” into a realm of Indians ad infinitum, an infinity of Indians. His artworks, especially his most controversial works, depicted a plurality of Indian experiences. Rather than one-dimensional, stoic, romanticized Indians, Scholder depicted visually recognizable Indians engaged in everyday activities and experiencing a full range of human emotions.

Scholder, Super Indian #2, 1972

Scholder’s Indians ate ice cream.

Fritz Scholder, Laughing Indian, 1973

Scholder’s Indians laughed.

Scholder, Screaming Indian, 1970

And they  screamed.

Scholder helped break new ground both stylistically and in terms of content. He described his painting technique as inspired by abstract expressionism, particularly the work of Francis Bacon, but he also described his style as “non-Indian because it was not flat and decorative.”

In an article in a 1973 issue of the journal Leonardo, Scholder wrote,

“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.”

He then switched to the issue of content:

            It seemed strange to me that there were taboos on the subject matter such as massacres, Indians holding cans of beer, Indians with cats…”[1]

Scholder wasn’t the only artist who was Native who was running up against the expectations of the Indian art market and the expectations of Indian traditionalists. Some of Scholder’s students were making political artwork, and Scholder was likely just as influenced by his students as they were by him. But Scholder had access to the larger art world as a result of his training and connections to well-established avant garde artists. His work gained a wide audience. The controversies around his work and issues of identity gained him further exposure, but also made him vulnerable. For an artist who is also Indian, the minefield of racism and stereotype was particularly debilitating, and Scholder suffered from this as have many others. His shifting approaches over the years, “just an artist,” an artist who is Indian, to being billed in the market as an “Indian artist,”  disavowing Indian subject matter for a time, and then returning to it, caused additional criticism and may be a factor in the lack of critical analysis of his later work.

It’s still not easy to be Indian, or to be an artist and be Indian. While Scholder was producing his paintings, he was also taking photographs. Some of his photographs documented popular stereotypes of Indians and he labeled them Indian kitsch. Many of his photographs were filled with irony and gritty realism. Scholder sometimes used elements of old photographs as the basis for his paintings and it seems natural that he would make some photographs of his own, as we see in the Indian kitsch series. Painting, however, remained his primary medium.

Jeffrey Thomas, Gerald Cleveland, Winnebago Nation, 1985

It seems like a logical step though, for artists determined to fashion new kinds of Indian identities that take contemporary Native experience as normal, authentic, and politically important to use the medium of photography.  Just as historic period photographs were used to establish the dominant cultures’ ideas about Indians, so modern photography by Native artists could complicate or radically shift those ideas. Jeffrey Thomas’ powwow photographs, for instance,  take us outside the powwow- out to the parking lot. In Gerald Cleveland, Winnebago Nation, Thomas gives us a beautiful photograph that is not romantic. Thomas makes powwow preparations a normal part of life – Gerald Cleveland can “be Indian” in a parking lot, with a pink panther hand mirror. It is a combination of ordinariness and special occasion. Traditional preparation for an important public event is taking place in our ordinary surroundings.  There is a similar emphasis on the both authenticity and undeniably active presence in the here and now, not in some romanticized past. This is the same element that helped make some of Scholder’s work so captivating.

Native photographers have developed bodies of work that find more and more ways of complicating our ideas about Indianess while engaging in inter and intra cultural critiques. Zig Jackson has turned the tourist’s camera back upon tourists at locations from powwows to our country’s national parks and monuments. Tom Jones has photographed elders in their homes, and complicated the idea of “Indian kitsch” by photographing the ways in which Indian people appropriate kitsch and re-work it into our environments in deliberate manners. Everywhere, Native artists are making artworks that expand the definitions of what is Native, that emphasize our own agency as participants and creators of Native cultures and popular culture. These artworks often fundamentally question the global world that we live in and address issues through the world at large, and it happens in installation art, performance art, video art, computer and internet based work, too.

Jason Lujan’s auto-ethnographic video installation I Look at Indians, I look at Myself uses humor and ironic juxtapositions to analyze a day in his ordinary life as an Indian man living in New York City. But he also imagines what it would look like if it were “normal” be Indian in NYC. He modifies the multilingual signage on the subway, on produce boxes, to include texts in Native languages, as in the Cherokee text on the lemon box: Le-Tsi-Ne-s. Lujan normalizes Native cultures as part of the ordinary fabric global culture, equal to any other cultural group.

video still from Jason Lujan's I Look at Indians, I Look at Myself

video still from Jason Lujan's I Look at Indians, I Look at Myself

“Indians are Forever” — Indians are Everyday

Scholder’s Indian works from the late 60s-early 70s were a part of the working out of the power of stereotypes and methods of resisting racist oppression through modes of visual representation. Traditionalist Indians objected to works such as Indian at the Bar, and the “Monster” Indians images as debasing, as exposing Indians to ridicule, or depicting Indians shamefully.  As if only creating depictions of “good” Indians could counter the systemic racism and oppression. Not so. The idea of a “good” Indian was based in the assumptions of the dominant culture- a culture with an idea that stuck Indians in a romantic past, and made them invisible in the present, or made Indians in the present into debased and inauthentic still-vanishing Indians, unconnected to so-called“real” Indian cultures, except when it was commercially viable. (100 % real Indian). Falling in with romantic, nostalgic representations of an Indianness-that-never-was is of limited use to actual Indian people, and is in fact, harmful. No one can live up to the romantic notions of what a stereotypical “traditional” Indian is. The constant external binary opposition: “authentic/inauthentic” is harmful to the wholeness of any person. Scholder was part of initial movement to put a more complicated representation of “Indian-ness” out there. Most of his compositions for these early Indian works were based on the classically painted portraits by Caitlin and anthropological studio photographs of Indians.  Stylistically, the energetic brush strokes and intense color brought an immediacy and vibrancy that helped overturn a recognizable formula from the salvage paradigm into an in-your-face claim for both authenticity and modernity.

I’d like to suggest that Scholder’s strongest legacy is this insistence on both authenticity and modernity. At the heart of it even may be the idea that Indians are normal. This is the kernel of an idea in which other artists have found vitality, hundreds of ways of depicting, expressing, and acting upon. Native artists take the everyday and make it Indian, and they take Indian life and make it everyday. Like artists in any part of the art world, they make the familiar alien, or make the alien into the familiar- sometimes simultaneously.

Scholder’s ability to take those Indian works of the 60s and 70s further was hampered by complex circumstances: a narrow definition of Indianness, lack of the general public’s visual literacy in regard to the varied material cultures of Native Americans, culture  tensions over identity politics, and an emphasis on formalism and so-called universal aesthetics over content within the mainstream art world. His turn away from Indian imagery and exploration of conventional subjects which, in the realm of western art, are thought of as “universal”- women, lovers’ embraces, and such, may be interpreted as the artist dodging the criticisms on identity issues.  I think is a very simplistic assumption. It’s possible to take the idea of Indians as being everyday people into a place where the material is not about Indian specificity, but about fundamentally shared ideas about emotional life and romantic entanglements. Why should any artist be prohibited from selecting themes they conceive of as universal?  To deny a Native artist the freedom to make work about lovers and relationships is absurd. Scholder exercised his right to make artwork without external limitations. While some may find his seemingly non-Indian works less compelling than his work of the late 60s and early 70s, his later works can be framed as just as radical. Once again, he flies in the face of expectations. For any artist of color, it is always a struggle to get art audiences to look at the artwork, instead of just racial or cultural issues. Making artwork that makes your own cultural and racial background part of the norm, instead of the exotic is a huge challenge.

Fritz Scholder, Together No 8, 1995

While Scholder turned away from “Indian” subject matter, other artists continued make work that chipped away at the assumptions about “Indian art” and Native peoples.  The comments from the early 70s that Scholder made about his style and subject matter running counter to the expectations of “Indian art” is something I want to come back to. Many artists working right now use traditional forms or references to those forms in their work in innovative ways. Sarah Sense takes her photographs and collages and creates woven two-dimensional and three-dimensional pieces that use traditional techniques and patterns, and yet keep the photographic images recognizable. For example, the Chitimacha basket is a traditional basketry form that has been created from digital photos of a rather ordinary-looking road that also happens to be the location of Chitimacha tribal headquarters in Louisiana.

Painter Jeffrey Gibson actually deals with some of the same relationship themes that Scholder worked with, although Gibson doesn’t just deal with opposite-gender pairings. Gibson’s content isn’t often specifically identifiable as “Indian” content, and the old painting aesthetics of the studio schools from the first half of the twentieth century have no place in his work, but he uses silicone paint to create sculptural embellishments that resemble raised beadwork pieces on the surfaces of his paintings. Gibson has developed a unique and appealing painting style, but a fuller understanding of his work, and the work of most Native artists working in the contemporary art mode is dependent upon viewers’ visual literacy in multiple symbolic systems. These symbolic systems may arise from historical representational practices of the dominant culture, or from contemporary intertribal practices like powwow, pop culture, rap/hip hop, punk rock subcultures, and global indigenous cultural exchanges. They make works that assume their audiences are accustomed to mingling diverse representational systems, and yet do not assume that all viewers come to their work with the same set of competencies. The meanings of content, subject, style, materials, and formal elements are not necessarily unified, consistent, or fixed.  Artworks now have a habit of functioning as experiments and experiences rather than definitive statements. Not that definitive statements don’t come about, but they are a process, rather than the end game. Scholder’s work may not have gone there, but his work is part of foundation for where we find ourselves now.

Scholder’s painterly style was not unique. Being a painter who was Indian in the late 1960s was not unique. Scholder’s work in the 1960s-70s, works like Indian with Beer Can, may turn out to be his most important contributions because he depicted Indians who were doing things. The uniqueness of some of Scholder’s works- the works that infuriated, troubled, intrigued, and even amused- were in the period of his career in which he painted Indians who were not romantic, who disturbed the anthropological gaze by doing everyday patently MODERN things. He presented to the public Indians who could be banal, flawed, political, righteous, and angry. Here is perhaps the real legacy of Scholder’s art- succeeding generations of artists who are Native, or First Nations, or Indigenous, Aboriginal, or Indian, who work to represent themselves in ways that resist romanticized concepts of cultural identity, artists who resist colonialism and post-colonialism. Their work has spread beyond painting, into photography, installation, performance art, and new media. The shock that Scholder injected into the world of Indian art is part of a continuing current of resistance, but even more important than resistance is creation: the creation of new kinds of Indians, complex Indians, Indians who live in more than two worlds – Indians who move through numerous cultures and subcultures. Writing in 1973, Scholder said “Hopefully, I have helped young Indian painters to feel free to paint as they wish.” But the ideas that Scholder’s work put out there, in a visual and visceral way, spread far beyond painting, and into artistic media and technologies that didn’t exist in when he wrote those words.


[1] Fritz Scholder, “On the Work of a Contemporary Indian Painter,” from Leonardo, Vol. 6, No. 2, (Spring 1973) 110.

3 thoughts on “Indians Ad Infinitum – the Conceptual Legacy of Fritz Scholder

  1. Hi there–Very interesting writing on this artist. I am an appraiser working on some of Scholder’s pieces and I wonder if you could let me know wher you got some of these images from for your article. I’m interested in the Laughing Indian, the Screaming Indian and the Super Indian. Thanks so much for your help. Elisabeth

  2. Hello. I find this very informative, thought-provoking and interesting! I am an art appraiser working on some Scholder paintings and I was wondering if you could tell me where you got some of these images from. I’m particularly interested in the Laughing Indian, the Super Indian and the Screaming Indian. Thanks so much!

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