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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.