The Denver Art Museum has been collecting and exhibiting American Indian artists’ work since 1925, and the exhibition Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967-1980, is part of our ongoing commitment to highlight the work of leading artists in this field.
Fritz Scholder, who passed away in 2005, revolutionized the way Native Americans are depicted in art as well as how American Indian artists are accepted in the contemporary art world. Trained in abstract expressionism and figurative art, he brought his style and larger-than-life personality to Santa Fe in 1964 where he began teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts. At that time, much of American Indian painting by native artists was flat, representational, and formulaic, and non-native artists and Hollywood Westerns tended to paint overly romantic depictions of native people. Turned off from this, he vowed never to paint an Indian.
Breaking a Vow
Scholder, who was an enrolled Luiseño, began his Indian series in 1967 as a response to these flat, clichéd styles of Indian painting and overly romanticized paintings and Hollywood depictions of the “noble savage,” but also as an experiment in how brushstroke, color, and composition could amplify the message when paired with emotionally charged subjects. He once said, “I vowed to myself that I would not paint Indians. Then I saw the numerous over-romanticized paintings of the “noble savage” . . . and decided that someone should paint the Indian in a different context.” (Read more of his quotes.)
When you see the exhibition, take some time to take one step closer to the paintings and look closely at how Scholder used color. Scholder was a brilliant colorist who often said that no color stands alone; it is the colors next to it that create energy and excitement. Every color pairing, brushstroke, and distorted face confronts the viewer in a very personal way.
At the time Scholder began his Indian series in 1967, pop art was a big trend in the art world. Pop artists like Andy Warhol used images from popular culture (like soup cans and Brillo pads) in their art. Similarly, Scholder brought elements of everyday life—ice cream cones, arcade games, and beer cans—into his paintings of Indians. He actively broke taboos by painting native people as “real, not red.” He wanted both native artists and the non-native viewing public to see that there was a different reality than what was depicted in sanitized images of native people. Scholder’s bright colors, thick and buttery paint, and blend of popular elements from both American Indian and white American cultures created some of the earliest examples of what was later termed “native pop.”
In these works Scholder confronts raw and painful experiences in contemporary American Indian life and history. Dark backgrounds or a high horizon line keep the subject front and center, a compositional treatment that forces the viewer to confront tragedy. Figurative artists like Scholder often show compassion for the human condition. Even though some of the subject matter is morbid, the energetic brushstrokes and bright colors elevate the subject from a dark place. “The positive does not exist without the negative, and the role of the artist is not to compromise, but to express the truth with all the power of which he is capable,” Scholder once said.
Super Indian: Fritz Scholder is on view at the DAM through January 17.