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Installation view, ‘Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967–1980’ at the Phoenix Art Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967–1980, currently on view at the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM), features over 40 oil paintings and prints by the Luiseño artist. The exhibition celebrates the work, influence, and ethos of Scholder, who left an indelible mark not only on the contemporary Native art world but on the mainstream art world as well.

Installation view, ‘Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967–1980’ at the Phoenix Art Museum (click to enlarge)

Walking into the exhibition space at PAM, the first thing I noticed — and was pleasantly surprised by — was the amount of real estate the museum devoted to this show. It’s uncommon for encyclopedic museums to showcase the work of a contemporary Native artist; more often than not, when they do focus on Native art, they mount mostly historical shows, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Plains Indians exhibition last year, further perpetuating the myth that Native Americans no longer exist. Though Scholder passed away in 2005, the impact of his work on contemporary American Indian artists is palpable. He was one of the first Native artists to find mainstream success while explicitly rejecting the status quo of representation, and that influence is evident today in the work of people like Frank Buffalo Hyde (Onondaga/Nez Perce), Cannupa Hanska Luger (Lakota/Mandan/Hidatsa), and Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke). At PAM, the expansive gallery space is filled with saturated yellows, pinks, and purples, echoing Scholder’s second-generation Pop art affiliation. In his time, Scholder worked alongside many mainstream Pop artists, including Andy Warhol, who immortalized him in a portrait that’s also included here. The setup nicely illustrates the hybridity that Scholder played with throughout his career, between being a “Native” artist and an “American” one.

Fritz Scholder, “Super Indian No. 2” (1971), oil canvas, Promised gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the Collection of Denver Art Museum (© Estate of Fritz Scholder) (click to enlarge)

The show gets its title from the painting “Super Indian No. 2” (1971), part of Scholder’s Indian Series. Set against an acrid yellow wall, the monumental work looms over you. It features a figure dressed in a loin cloth, horned buffalo warbonnet, and moccasins sitting against a flat background; his face is darkened by shadow as he holds a bright pink ice cream cone. At first the sitter appears ominous, almost scary, but upon closer inspection, the face of this unknown other is in fact draped in a melancholy sweetness, a longing to be understood. The piece lays the groundwork for the narrative arc of the exhibition, which traces Scholder’s exploration of the psychological state of Native America, hitting on ideas of representation, misrepresentation, and stereotype along the way.

Scholder’s portraits — here given a section of their own — are particularly powerful. Large-format canvases in the vein of Pop art present imagery that seems to dance between stereotypes of American Indians and the agency of self-representation. One painting shows a chief with a feather in his hair and one eye blacked out; his other gazes at the viewer. His mouth is drawn straight, almost emotionless. The chief is placed against a red background, referencing the derogatory term “red man” but also life, passion, power, and all sorts of emotions that can be read into that crimson shade. The piece is steeped in stoicism, the preconception that Natives are meant to be seen but not spoken to, purely mythical figures who exist only onscreen, opposite John Wayne. Yet the sitter is self-possessed. He seems to rise above the stereotypes placed on him to meet the viewer directly. He asks us if we are willing to take the time and effort to truly see him.

Fritz Scholder, “American Portrait with One Eye” (1975), acrylic on canvas, Promised Gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the Collection of the Denver Art Museum (© Estate of Fritz Scholder)

Moving deeper into the exhibition, past the portraits, we encounter Scholder’s works that grapple with history, including specific events. One piece, referencing the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, shows a snowy landscape with a sliver of silvery blue sky peeking out at the top, the figure of a horse standing in the distance. In the foreground, an open grave. Mangled bodies with raw flesh exposed tell the tale of troops from the US 7th Cavalry Regiment slaughtering an estimated 300 Lakota. (The site of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, would make history yet again almost 100 years later during the American Indian Movement occupation in 1973.) The painting pushes the viewer to confront the dark history of the US government’s treatment of Native peoples — a history filled with broken treaties and a disregard for Native life. It feels incredibly relevant today, as several tribal reservations are threatened by energy extraction and police violence against Native Americans increases.

Installation view, ‘Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967–1980’ at the Phoenix Art Museum, with “Massacre in America: Wounded Knee” (1972) in foreground left (click to enlarge)

The exhibition is powerful and evocative, particularly at a time when Native Americans seem to be pushing for self-determination more strongly than they have since the 1960s and ’70s (which was, coincidentally, the peak of Scholder’s career). It’s truly refreshing to see this much space and consideration given to a contemporary Native artist. Scholder’s work is multifaceted, dancing between beauty and activism.

Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967–1980 continues at the Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ) through June 5.

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Erin Joyce

Erin Joyce (b. 1987) has worked as an independent curator and journalist in New York, London, Dubai, Dallas, Santa Fe, and throughout Arizona and California since 2010. Her focus as a scholar and curator...

11 replies on “A Native American Artist Who Painted Pop and Challenged the Status Quo”

  1. “…like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Plains Indians exhibition last year, further perpetuating the myth that Native Americans no longer exist”

    Did you exit through the entrance? The whole last room was devoted to contemporary Native American art. Jamie Okuma’s work made the year before (in 2014) was fantastic.

    These fake complaints made by terrible writers are annoying because they dismiss the hard work of real professionals just to appear informed and “critical” when it’s obvious they aren’t. All you editors have to do is ask if what they’re saying is true and when they have no basis to show it is you delete the sentence. It’s easy.

    OK, I have to get away from this train wreck and stop commenting on this site.

    1. I will help you. Thanks! … and many people complained that the Met’s Plains Indians show tucked contemporary voices at the end rather than making them integral.

  2. Scholder was not really an American Indian. It is incorrect to call him one. While it is true Scholder had some American Indian blood, as do many people, it is also true that he never participated in any American Indian culture, spoke no American Indian language and did not live with or even know any American Indians. It is in fact racist in a weird way to call him “an Indian”. He did paint something resembling “Indians” but that hardly makes him one. It is really just crazy to call him an Indian, and calling him a a super indian is perverse and very racist. People who think Scholder is an Indian are the same people who think Donald Trump is OK. It is sad how poorly informed the media and the public is one questions like this. Scholder was a European in his birth, his habits, his money, and his preferences.

    1. > did not live with or even know any American Indians

      He taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts with American Indian colleagues and students. Having been born in Minnesota, Scholder was American in his birth, habits, money, and preferences.

      Scholder has been widely criticized, for instance by his former student the late Billy Soza War Soldier (Cahuilla-Apache), for using his Native identity when it suited him; i.e. showing in Native venues but preferring to be the only Native artists in mainstream group shows. In today’s parlance, Scholder could be described as actively “problematizing” American Indian identity in the art world.

  3. To be fair, I think Fritz made some good monotypes and paintings. I just never saw him or the work as having much to do with activism and associated it with Wayne Thiebaud and bay area painting more than pop and Warhol. I’m actually not trying to pick on him. I just think this article is using this show as a platform for the authors own interest in social justice. I just have different associations with him and his work.

  4. Super Indian? I thought Fritz was a quarter Luiseno. I didnt know he was from India. Against the status quo? He was cerlebrated early on by the status quo. Schwarzenegger certainly helped his career but the list is long. Did Arnold come up with the title Super Indian? I’m 4th generation Arizona guy and was active in the phoenix art scene in the 90’s before artwalks downtown and before every trendy wanted to be an artist. I remember seeing his rolls royce breakdown on Marshall Way when I was working at a gallery representing less fortunate native american artists down the street from where he showed.

  5. Forget the myriad political implications, Fritz’s work is a vital component of the “pop’ lexicon with all the dynamic elements, drawing, color and texture.

  6. The misguided logic that says showing historical work by Native American renders them non-existent is ridiculous. Plains Indians nearly became non-existent because of buffalo hunters, gold miners, homesteaders, the US Army…besides does the author really believe that myth?

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