Indians with Umbrellas by Fritz Scholder

Native Artists Discuss Fritz Scholder

Much has been said about Fritz Scholder's art (on view at the Denver Art Museum in Super Indian), identity, personality, and legacy over the past half a century by Native people, artists, critics, former students, journalists, and scholars. He was a polarizing person and artist. He had a vision for what American Indian art should become and, frankly, he was not all that nice to some Native artists that didn't share his views, particularly those that worked in more traditional media, e.g. beadwork. But his impact on American Indian art is not in doubt.

Fritz Scholder, Indian No. 1, 1967. Oil paint on canvas. 20 × 18 in. Collection of Anne and Loren Kieve. © Estate of Fritz Scholder.

Now that we are almost one year shy of the 50th anniversary of Scholder's painting of Indian No. 1 (1967), I thought I would check in with some Native artists and ask them to share their thoughts on Fritz, his art, and his legacy. I contacted over 50 artists for comment. Some artists respectfully declined, but here are the eight responses that I received:

Taught Me How to See Paint

"Scholder's work in many ways taught me how to see paint... its materiality, raw expressive qualities, and unrestrained possibilities. The discussions around his identity, both as defined by self and community have provided a rich and important platform for dialogue within the Native arts field." - Dyani White Hawk Polk (Sicangu Lakota painter)

Off-Hand Advice

"In the late 90s, I worked at a museum as a guard in Scottsdale, Arizona. We had an exhibition of Fritz Scholder's work up and he would come in regularly to check on it. I would chat him up once in a while and this is how he found out I was an artist. I would love talking to him about paint and enjoying how it moves, expresses. I asked for some advice and he said "get out of this small town and see the big city" by which he meant places like New York City. He then said, and I'll never forget, "apply to a fancy art school, like Yale" and he laughed as did I. Eventually, I did stop working there to focus on my art, and I took his off-hand advice, applied to Yale and got in! I might never have considered it if not for his casual words. I currently show my work in NYC regularly!" - Marcus Zilliox (Cheyenne/Pima/Mexica painter)

From the Same Reservation

"Fritz was a Luiseño (Payomkawichum) by blood and a member of the La Jolla Band of Indians, which is also the tribe of which I am a member. As a child I was always aware of Fritz and the Scholders. I live directly across from his relatives. Scholder Lane is the street in front of my house. My mother Sandra, being an artist as well, was well aware of him and talked about him from time to time. I knew he had struggles with his identity and recall thinking it contradictory that he was famous for painting Indian imagery. He did, however, build a house here on the La Jolla Indian Reservation.

Fritz Scholder's house on the La Jolla Indian Reservation. Photo courtesy Jamie Okuma.

How much time was spent there, I don't know. Other than those things, the only other thought I've had about him was that I think it’s pretty f@#%ing cool that arguably the most famous Indian artist comes from my reservation." - Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock mixed-media sculptor, fashion designer)

Turned Native American Painting Upside Down

"IAIA, T.C. Cannon, Santa Fe, Scottsdale, cool belt buckles and jewelry, color, acres of canvas with super-fast brush strokes, underpainting, trailblazing. I'm a nostalgic type so I'm envious of the time period Scholder, T.C., Pletka and others were a part of when what people considered contemporary Native American painting was turned upside down. I've got nothing against the guy. Somebody had to do it." - Matthew Bearden (Citizen Potawatomi painter)

One of My Idols

"I was very fortunate to meet Fritz Scholder after graduating from the University of Kansas. He was a very big influence on my work while at KU. He gave me good advice about painting and about my work. He was one of my idols growing up." - Brent Learned (Cheyenne and Arapaho painter)

A Visceral Reaction

"It's a visceral reaction to his colors and imagery that forces me to step aside, pause and then breathe." - Linda Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota ledger artist)

Later Works are Beautiful & Brave

"I might be one of the few people that most prefers Fritz Scholder's latest works. They are extremely dark and disturbing—dealing with warfare and death—but in these he expresses his own voice, instead of responding to the expectations of others. Scholder's later works are beautiful and brave and stand tall in the canon of contemporary Native art." - America Meredith (Swedish-Cherokee painter, printmaker, educator, and editor)

Really Hit a Nerve

"Growing up as an artistic Cherokee kid in Oklahoma, everybody would try to steer me into making the usual stereotypical Indian art. When I was a teenager, Indian With Beer Can was the first Scholder piece I saw, and I remember the energy and dark humor in it really hit a nerve in me. While some might find the image offensive or even ugly, it definitely was not a maiden on the river or a warrior on horseback, and I liked that." - Roy Boney, Jr. ᎧᏂᎦ ᎪᎳᎭ (Cherokee painter)

Top image: Fritz Scholder, Indians with Umbrellas, 1971. Lithograph. 22 × 30 in. Denver Art Museum: Purchased with Modern & Contemporary Department acquisition funds, 1973.53.7. © Estate of Fritz Scholder.

John P. Lukavic is the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum. He has been with DAM since 2012.