- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fritz Scholder once vowed he would never paint pictures of American Indians but eventually became famous for them.

His bold, brightly colored artworks are nothing like the familiar ethnographic representations of Indian tribes by artist George Catlin and photographer Edward Curtis. Populated by discontented, drunk and dead Indians, they reject the popular cliche of the noble savage.

The Indian series created by Mr. Scholder during the 1960s and ‘70s is the best part of the retrospective devoted to his work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The vibrant but uneven survey of about 110 pieces includes lesser known sculptures along with paintings, prints and drawings created over four decades.

A concurrent exhibition at the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in Lower Manhattan focuses on later pieces created in the 1980s when the artist lived in New York City.

Mr. Scholder (1937-2005) was a supreme colorist who attacked his subjects with vivid hues, energetic brushwork and graphic compositions. Brilliant canvases filled with fragmented shapes and stratified landscapes start the show to reveal the artist’s roots in abstract expressionism and pop art. This painterly sensibility continued to influence his work even after he shifted into figurative themes.

Born in Breckinridge, Minn., Mr. Scholder grew up in North Dakota and South Dakota and studied with painter Wayne Thiebaud at Sacramento City College in California. He received a master’s degree from the University of Arizona in 1964 and was immediately invited to join the faculty of the newly established Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

As a teacher, he encouraged his Indian students to explore new ways of representing their heritage.

His own ancestry was part Indian - his paternal grandmother was from the Luiseno tribe in California - and part French, English and German. He was the fifth Fritz in his family. “I’m a non-Indian Indian,” he often said.

Mr. Scholder declared he would never paint the Indian, but his pupils’ efforts to depict the subject in a contemporary way inspired him to do the same. His first painting, “Indian No. 1” from 1967, reflects a pop sensibility in its bold palette and stenciled-on lettering.

That same year, he created “Indian No. 16” with a question mark floating over the faceless figure on horseback, as if wondering about the true identity of the tribesman.

From these portraits, the artist moved on to challenge the sentimental view of the American Indian by exposing the isolation, resentment and alcoholism of reservation life.

“Indian With Beer Can,” a painting now owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren, pictures a man in sunglasses and a black hat hunched over a bar, his teeth bared in anger. “Indian in Car” frames a figure in the back-seat window, his mouth open in a primal scream. “Super Indian No. 2” pokes fun at a traditional ceremony staged for tourists by showing a buffalo dancer holding an ice-cream cone.

These controversial works tapped into the growing Indian rights movement and revisionist history popularized in movies and books of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Films such as “Little Big Man” and “Soldier Blue” challenged standard interpretations of battles between Indian tribes and the U.S. Army.

Mr. Scholder directly addressed such conflicts in his powerful Massacre series of Plains landscapes littered with the bloody corpses of Indians. Some of these mangled figures are depicted with the distortion of a blurry painting by British artist Francis Bacon, whose influence is evident throughout the exhibit.

In 1982, flush with success, Mr. Scholder moved to a New York City loft. He abandoned his Indian theme to paint the Empire State Building and abstract figures far less potent than his Southwestern works. Some of these examine human relationships from a darkly sinister perspective. The embracing couple in “Monster Love 1” emulates Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s Vampire series, but without its anguished bite.

The artist’s explorations in sculpture during this period also fall flat. They range from “Ritual Boxes,” a bronze riff on minimalism, to syrupy winged figures and a tall obelisk inspired by a trip to Egypt, now standing in the museum’s garden.

Mortality and isolation became an obsession in Mr. Scholder’s later years as reflected in images of empty rooms, lone figures and skulls painted in Diet Coke and the artist’s own blood.

Few of these experiments are as successful as the Indian paintings. Mr. Scholder seemed to acknowledge that he had lost his way: In the 1990s, he returned to his signature theme. These high-contrast portraits of braves and chieftains may have been painted in response to financial pressures. They express what the artist once derided - a view of the Indian far more romantic than realistic.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian”

WHERE: National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; Thursdays until 8 p.m.; through Aug. 16

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.american indian.si.edu

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