An Artist's Identify Theft
Painter Denied Indian Ties, Yet Work Revealed Connection
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008
It would be easier to believe that Fritz Scholder was conflicted about his identity -- was he a Native American artist, or an artist who happened to be one-quarter Native American? -- if he hadn't been quoted as saying, "Fine art is still the best racket around."
That line appears in a short film accompanying a show of Scholder's work at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. It's to the museum's credit that the curators are so upfront about the controversy that dogged Scholder's career, his lifelong insistence that he wasn't really an Indian, even as he grew rich and famous painting garish and confrontational images of Indians. It's hard not to walk through this exhibition and smell more than a whiff of fraud going on.
It was a complicated fraud, though, maybe so complicated that the fraud itself approaches the level of art.
Scholder, who died three years ago, was born in 1937, in Minnesota, to a father who was half-Indian and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Despite this connection with his Luiseño past (a native people from Southern California), Scholder said he grew up outside native culture, "off-reservation," and was never educated in the notorious Indian schools that left many of their graduates angry and confused about their place in American society.
When he went to Santa Fe, N.M., in 1964 to teach painting and art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Scholder was firmly devoted to being an abstract expressionist. And he famously declared that he would never paint an Indian -- and encouraged his students to do likewise. One of his early paintings, from 1961, seems to capture the intensity and hollowness of his commitment to abstraction. "The Paradox" is a field of gray and black, under what may be a red horizon or a suggestion of blood. Crudely suggested faces emerge from the canvas, as if Scholder is flirting with an idea he doesn't have the courage to embrace.
But he would embrace figurative painting in a big way in 1967, with a painting called "Indian No. 1," in which a native man was rendered with the static, stare-at-the-camera pose of an old photograph. His hair is green, and he is set against a vivid orange background. One side of his face is partially obscured by dark paint, and the word "Indian" is painted in the upper-right corner, recalling the stenciled letters and words that Jasper Johns had been using for years.
This was a major breakthrough for the artist, and he followed up with other Indians. But these were not the sentimentalized, kitschy Indians that are still on sale in galleries in Santa Fe and other Western art centers. Scholder's Indians belonged more to the tormented world of Francis Bacon, the British painter whose figures often seem to be dissolving in violent streaks of paint. "Indian With Beer Can," painted in 1969, was perhaps the most infamous of Scholder's early Indian series, showing a man at a bar with a Coors next to him. His personality is obscured by dark sunglasses, his teeth are pointed and crumbling, and sharp, painful lines of paint have been scraped into his face.
Scholder was violating taboos with these works, creating images that didn't just break with the prettified world of so many previous Indian painters but that directly engaged darker issues, including alcoholism, that haunted Native American society. But he was also building on, or stealing, the work of other painters. Including his own students in Santa Fe.
As the exhibition's catalogue makes clear, younger Indian painters such as Alfred Young Man and Bill Soza Warsoldier were grappling with similar material, Indian portraits done in a jarring, pop-art sort of way -- well before "Indian No. 1." Even the psychotic blurring style of Bacon's portraits was borrowed by Scholder's students before he, in turn, borrowed it from them.
Does this make him a fraud? Watch Scholder paint in the short film that accompanies the exhibition, and it's clear that he's not a fraud in the emperor's-new-clothes vein. He paints with great confidence, and speed, and even if he was borrowing ideas from his students, he was also simplifying them and perhaps improving on them. Some would argue that while his students pointed out the path, it took an artist of Scholder's talents to actually forge it.
But it's disappointing to see how empty and even incompetent his later paintings are. After his enormous success as a controversial Indian painter, he mostly set aside Indian imagery during the 1980s and '90s. He focused on themes and motifs -- vampires, expressionistic imagery of couples embracing and dreamlike canvases that recall Edvard Munch -- which feel almost infantile in their adolescent angst. And they aren't very well done. Even in his occasional return to Indian subjects in the mid-1990s, he seems spent. The figures stare out of the paintings with the awkward, sullen, bored look of men in a freak show, seemingly trapped and unhappy in the gaze of the viewer. Around them, an undisciplined storm of paint is dripped and dashed and smeared.
Worse, for some observers of his career, is Scholder's lifelong, unresolved dance of embrace and denial of his own Indian identity, and his almost dismissive attitude to the Indian works that made him famous.
"I'm no more an Indian artist than the man in the moon," he told People magazine in 1977. At a round-table discussion organized by the Smithsonian in 2007 (reprinted in the catalogue), Young Man was blunt: "It confuses me why we are still extolling him as an Indian artist." He went on to accuse Scholder of being a con man. Which Scholder almost seems to admit in that curious line about art being "the best racket around."
Of course, you can't win this game. If you embrace the label "Indian artist," you end up stuck in the Indian artist rut, making Indian art your whole career, art that is analyzed more for what it says about you, your ethnicity and your psychological accommodation to minority status, than as pure art. But Scholder couldn't reject the label entirely for two reasons. First, the only thing that prevents paintings such as "Indian With Beer Can" from veering into the realm of caricature is the stabilizing and legitimizing presence of an Indian artist. If painted by a white artist, they would be dismissed as hate speech.
The other reason is more problematic. If Scholder weren't an Indian artist, his art wouldn't matter very much. Scholder's great fraud -- or perhaps his great accomplishment -- is to make art that seems to be the product of a genuinely divided mind, filled with irony, anguish and repressed ideas. But the more time you spend with his work, the more you sense that Young Man (and Scholder himself) were right about a con game underneath it all. The anguish doesn't feel real.
And so by denying that he was an Indian, Scholder became a closeted Indian artist, which paradoxically allowed him to create Indian art, which somehow feels more complex and interesting than other Indian art because it's . . . not really Indian art. It's a dizzying game. But Scholder managed to keep it going for decades, which is quite an accomplishment.