30 March 2011

Fritz Scholder

[I recently published “’May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite” (22 October 2010) which caught the attention of Jordan Richman, a retired professor who lives in Phoenix. Richman, who did his doctoral work at the University of New Mexico, was good enough to repost the article on his blog Art Legends (http://www.artlegends.org), which features some posts dedicated to Native American culture. One of the posted items was a self-portrait and other paintings by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), an American Indian artist in whom my family and I have had an interest for some time. Back in 2008, my mother and I went to a retrospective of his work at the National Museum of the American Indian, both the New York segment of the exhibit at the New York City satellite down at Bowling Green and, later, the larger part at the NMAI on the Mall in Washington. Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian ran from 1 November 2008 until 17 May 2009 in New York and 16 August in Washington. Here’s the report on those visits I wrote two years ago.]

On 30 November 2008, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, during an all-day drizzle here, Mom and I trucked down to the National Museum of the American Indian on Bowling Green. (It's now an annex of the main NMAI on the National Mall, but until that museum was opened in 2004, the George Gustav Heye Center was the NMAI, installed in the handsome Beaux Arts Alexander Hamilton Customs House in 1994.) NMAI was holding a two-part exhibit/retrospective of the work of Fritz Scholder, half here in New York and half in Washington; the smaller half here focused on Scholder's painting and sculpture of the 1980s and '90s when he concentrated on non-Indian subjects, including his "mystery woman," a recurring subject, as well as mythical and supernatural figures. Scholder’s an artist in whom my mother has a special interest, having first seen his work with my dad in Santa Fe at the artist's studio there and then again in Dallas, where they bought Another Mystery Woman (c. 1987), a bronze sculpture that’s one of his Mystery Woman series.

Fritz Scholder is, himself, something of a curious character quite aside from his art, which has always been controversial both among the art establishment and among Native Americans. He was born in Minnesota to an Anglo mother and a father who was half German-American and half Luiseño Indian; Scholder’s a member of the Luiseño tribe of Southern California, though he’s said that you can't be something when it's only a quarter of your heritage. Scholder grew up ambivalent about his Indian heritage; in fact, it was hardly mentioned in his home when he was growing up. His father was an administrator of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools but the family lived off the reservation and Fritz went to public schools instead of the BAI schools his father had attended. Scholder said of his father's attitude toward his native heritage that the elder Scholder "was the product of the old Indian schools—he was ashamed of being an Indian." (He also spoke of the Indian schools as being a brainwashing tool used by the Anglo society to erase Native American culture and language and turn Indians into Anglos. That's exactly what they were: their very philosophy was to assimilate the Indian students. It nearly worked, too.) The artist recounted that at their wedding, his mother and father had been given many Indian crafts, such as Maria Martinez pottery (very beautiful black-on-black, very famous, and very valuable), baskets, robes, and blankets, as wedding gifts, but that his father had thrown them all out.

So Scholder grew up essentially denying his own Indian heritage, and though he was determined to become an artist from an early age (his talent was first recognized as early as 1955), he was also determined not to paint Indians. In 1967, he broke his pledge, however, when he saw how badly the Indian was portrayed in art, even Indian art, and his earliest Indian works were immediately controversial for their break with the traditional view of Native Americans in art and their gritty and sometimes seamy portraits of his own people. That year, with Indian No. 16, a featureless Indian with a firm question mark floating over his headdress, “[P]eople just freaked out,” said the artist. “I knew they would.” After Scholder achieved considerable recognition, even if he was viewed as an iconoclast and rebel, in the Southwest, where he had settled, the artist decided he needed to be received by the Eastern art world in order to be a true success. After sojourns and exhibits around the world in places as exotic as Romania, Egypt (where he painted the Sphinx and the pyramids), and Paris, he moved to New York City in 1982 (he lived in the East Village) and vowed again never to paint Indians. For nearly a decade, Scholder kept to other subjects for his work—those "mystery woman" depictions and figures of myth and the spirit world—until he again turned to Indian portrayals in the 1990s, acknowledging that one should never make pledges of that nature. Hence the title for this two-part exhibit: Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian. It alludes to both the man and his work.

Whether painting (he did few sculptures, and they’re often renditions of subjects he was painting) Indians, the "mystery woman," vampires, animals, or fallen angels, Scholder's art is frequently decidedly eerie and disturbing, albeit brightly colored. The painting that was the emblem for the New York exhibit, Purgatory (1996), one of the three-part series that also includes Heaven and Hell (all displayed on three walls of the same small gallery), is a large (almost 7'x6') bust of a man in a black shirt with a purple tie, wearing a pillbox hat that looks like a black fez. The figure's face is frightening, like something from an old horror movie (think Boris Karloff in The Mummy), set in a grimace revealing a row of sharp, dripping teeth. (Another of Scholder's recurring subjects is the vampire.) The face is half shadowed, but the eye in the light half, though blue, is obscured and dark as if the socket were excessively deep, while the eye in the dark half of the face stares out brightly with a dark iris surrounded by a white cornea. The subject of all three paintings in the series was identified as the artist, who made a self-portrait every year, often on his birthday. Though not all Scholder's work is so threatening, this was the impression his retrospective gave even as there were pleasanter images among the pieces on display. Scholder said he didn't like pretty pictures (a sentiment echoed by Joan Miró when he quoted Rembrandt: "I find rubies and emeralds in a dung heap"—cited at the exhibit of the Spanish surrealist's work at MoMA which I saw at this time also).

Later, I went to Washington for two weeks at the end of the year. We drove down to the Mall to see the larger half of the two-part Scholder show at NMAI on Monday afternoon, 22 December, the day after I arrived in town. As you recall, the works exhibited at the Heye Center focused on the period when Scholder worked out of New York City and painted non-Indian subjects. The exhibit in Washington was larger and while it covered the whole of Scholder's career, from his teenage start in abstract expressionism to his late works, it was dominated by the artist's paintings of Indian subjects, the work that made him famous and successful—if also controversial. From the very start, Scholder worked in bright, often dissonant colors; pinks, oranges, blues, yellows blast out from his canvases whether they’re the youthful experimentations of his teens and early twenties or the figurative works of his middle career. His earliest works, which clearly owe a debt to such abstractionists as Roberts Rauschenberg and Motherwell (and maybe Richard Diebenkorn), are broad swatches of color on large canvases. Scholder studiously avoided figurative painting in his early years, and the works have an air of deliberation and derivation that felt to me like a young artist consciously searching for a medium that could be his, but not having found it yet. (I once saw a small show of Diego Rivera's cubist works that felt the same way—like he was trying out stuff that wasn't really "him" yet.) Scholder named Francisco Goya, Edvard Munch, and Francis Bacon as some of his influences. Ironically, after breaking his (first) vow never to paint Indians, he seemed immediately to have come into his own when he began to do so. He not only had found the style he’d manifest for the rest of his career—what I have to call "abstract impressionism," though I don't know that any such form officially exists—but he had something to say. (It’s what he seemed to have to say that made him controversial among both artists/critics and Native Americans.) He was commenting on both the world of Native Americans—their contemporary lives—and the ways in which Indians had been (and were being) depicted in American art, including Native American art. Scholder's Indian paintings seem to have fallen into three vague categories, at least as I observed them. In one, he painted the Indians he saw on the streets and in the bars of Santa Fe or Tucson; in another, he parodied, deconstructed, or travestied the conventional artistic view of Indians from the 19th century to the late 20th—those Remington depictions of the Noble Savage, for instance; and in a third, he presented what might be interpreted as a combination of these in renderings of old photographs of Indians taken in the early years of the last century, often by anthropologists and sociologists. We know from the New York City exhibit that Scholder eschewed "pretty pictures," but his Indian paintings were often also unflattering as well. His contemporary portraits included drunken Indians or Indians asleep on the sidewalk, sprawled against a storefront—the men (there are almost no women among these pictures) he saw around him. (His most iconic work is Indian with Beer Can, 1969, a man in a wide-brimmed, black cowboy hat and sunglasses, slouching over a bar with a can of Coors at his elbow, his mask-like face baring pointed, feral teeth.) The Indian communities didn't appreciate this kind of truthful art—what van Gogh called l’art véridique.

Scholder's ambivalence about painting Indians is certainly understandable from his background, but it has to be said that not only are his Indian paintings the foundation of his reputation, they’re also by far the most interesting work of his career. Ironically, it was his students at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe who turned him onto Indian paintings. Though he had abjured the subject for himself, the young artists he was teaching were exploring different ways to depict their own people and this intrigued Scholder. Artistically, emotionally, and intellectually, they’re the most complex of his works.

[A little history of NMAI: George Gustav Heye opened his private Museum of the American Indian to the public in 1922 to house and display his own collection of Native American art. He’d started collecting in 1903 and he established the Heye Foundation in 1916 to oversee it and promote the study of Indian art and culture. The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in Harlem until it had been acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and moved to the Custom House in 1994. The Smithsonian took over Heye’s museum in 1989 and then opened the main building for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in 2004. The Heye Center, now a satellite of the larger NMAI, maintains its own permanent collection (based on Heye’s original holdings) and exhibits.

[As it happens, the Heye Center’s just undergone a reorganization. Housed in the 1907 Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan, it’s redesigned the exhibition for its permanent collection. I haven’t seen the new installation, but since the old one was interesting as it was, I can only recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the art of the American Indian, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful and all of which is eye-opening, pay a visit to this little-known museum at the southern tip of the island. It’s free (as are all Smithsonian facilities) and open every day (including Mondays, the traditional dark day for museums, and holidays except Christmas Day). The Customs House alone is worth the trip—it’s a magnificent Beaux Arts building in its own right, a Historic Landmark, and serves as a perfect example of terrific re-use of historic architecture.

[Thanks to Jordan Richman both for his compliment of republishing my Shalako article on Art Legends and for providing the impetus to publish this report on a fascinating American artist on ROT.]

1 comment:

  1. Jordan Richman has generously cross-posted this article on his own site, Art Legends (www.artlegends.org), with some personal comments of his own. Reproductions of several of Scholder's paintings are also posted on that site.

    Thank you, Dr. Richman.