The phone rings. He doesn't bother to answer it. He doesn't even watch it as it rings, not even a little bit curious who's calling. "I could sell everything I paint if I wanted to," he says over the ringing. "I have no troulbe selling anything I do."
Later Lee Cohen of Gallery 10 in Aspen, one of seven galleries authorized by Fritz Scholder to sell his work... will come around to chat, to tell the painter he's got clients for more work. Scholder will smile and say, "We'll see.
"That was probably a dealer calling," Scholder says when the ringing stops. "My prices run $15,000, $20,000, up to $30,000 a canvas, but I don't like to sell everything. I like to keep a lot of my won work."
The work Fritz Scholder doesn't keep finds its way into major collections. His shows sell out. One recently published series of lithographs, priced at $1,500 each, has hit $5,000 each in under six months. He hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, the Sithsonian, the National Gallery. He's currently preparing work for the Washart Fair in May. His "Deco-Indian" will be the official poster and catalogue cover for the Western States Arts Biennial at the National Collection of Fine Arts in June.
Scholder is 41, and doesn't believe in starving in a garrett. "In Scottsdale, I drive a Rolls Royce. In Taos, I drive a Honda. I enjoy the paradox of it all."
Born in Minnesota, he is one-quarter California Mission Indian; the tribe is Luiseno. His Indian blood through his father was always deemphasized by his parents. "I never thought about it until I got out of college. Now, of course, it's very in to be an Indian. But that's only within the past 10 years. However, every time I read about myself they call me an Indian artist. That's crazy, becuase I'm not an Indian. I've also been called a pop artist. I don't think of myself as that either. I'm simply a painter and a print maker who has used the Indian as a major theme."
Growing up in the Dakotas, he says he felt like, "An alien. None there knew anyghing about art. I was always painting and drawing, but then all kids always paint and draw. The difference was that I never stopped." He studied for a while with noted Sioux painnter Oscar Howe... "There was a heavy cubist influence in his work, although throughout my teen-age years I was very deep into surrealism"... then went to Sacramento City College where he studied with Wayne thiebaud. "He opened my eyes to pop art."
Scholder got himself a teaching degree, but couldn't get a teaching post because there weren't any to be had. So he did whatever odd jobs came along to support both his painting and a young family. Then, in 1961, the Bureau of Indian Affairs found his name on one of their lists and they invited him to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored Southwest Indian Art Project. "My name is still on the gobernment's books as being an Indian and every now and then they send me a check. Someone somewhere takes the government to court and the government decides to pay all Indians for stolen land and out go the checks to all us Indians. Oh well, $158 comes in handy from time to time."
He was awarded a full scholarship for the Indian art project, which included free materials and space to paint. He says he didn't have anything better to do that summer, and it was a free trip to Arizona and he had never been there before, and so he accepted.
"I met Indian artists there, which interested me because I had never met any before. Until then I didn't know anything about Indian art. Through that experience I enrolled at the Univeristy of Arizona in a Master of Fine Arts course. Before I went to Arizona I was painting huge non-objective things. Dark and gloomy canvases. When you have to get up early to go to lumberyards so you can steal wood scraps for frames before they get burned and then go to some carpet store to beg for burlap so you can have something to paint on, after all that when you get down to painting, you're wasted. It was very depressing. It was a bad time. I thought the chance to go to Arizona and to study again could change my life."
It did. It also opened his eyes to the fact that he had a talent other people could be jealous of. "I was hated. Literally despised. Here I was a young painter taking classes with established pros, and we would all submit our work for shows and the teachers would be turned down and ei would win first prize. I made for a lot of hurt feelings."
The roles were reversed a few years later; in 1964, when he got his MFA then accepted a job to teach painting at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe. As a teacher to young Indian artists, he tried to stress the importance of treating the Indian as an individual rather than a stereotype or romanticized figure. He had promised himself that he would never paint Indians, but by 1967: "I knew I had to try it. I knew I had to try to paint the Indian real, not red." From the first, Scholder's Indian paintings came under fire. Some said he painted ugly Indians, that he went looking for the worst, that he hated Indians.
"I paint what I see," Scholder says. "I acturlly did see an Indian once walk away from a ceremonial dance, in full costume, go to a snack bar that had been set up for the white tourists, and order a double-scoop strawberry ice cream cone. I painted that.
"The fact that I have wrapped Indians in American flags is not a political statement, it's what I've seen. At one point the Bureau of Indian Affairs shipped thousands of American flags out West and that's what the Indians did with them.
"The Indian I've painted with his hand wrapped around a beer can, well, I see that all the time. People I know have visited towns like Gallup, N.M., and then told me, 'My God, the whole town is filled with Scholder Indians.'
"The reason my work sometimes upsets people, especially my Indians, is because it's non-traditional. The so-called traditional school of Indian Art, the one sometimes known as the Waters of Minnetonka School, was founded by a white man. It was probably the most artificial art movement ever known in this country. And even though some good talent got caught up in it, the school became a trap for most Indian artists. If they didn't paint in the decorative, tourist-pleasing style imposed on them, they couldn't seel their work."
The young Indian painter would then spend his time doing portraits of his ancestors in feathers, whooping it up around a fire, so that someone from the east wouldn't have to pay more than $13 for a souvenir of his trip west.
Scholder operates out of three homes... a ranch in Scottsdale, an adobe hacienda in Sante Fe and a classic Indian adobe in Taos. "I'm a different person in each one. I paint differently in each one." His business savvy however doesn't seem to change no matter where he is. "I learned about the art business the hard way, by being screwed badly on a few deals, so now I lay down the ground rules. If someone doesn't like it, tough. Because I sell, I'm in a very good position to set the rules. I want to control my prices and I want to know who buys the work."
Newton McKenna of the Maxwell Galleries in San Francisco, agrees that Scholder does not play the game, and says Scholder's reputation with gallery owners is one of a no-nonsense kind of guy: "He is the frontrunner in the Southwestern art movement, and he knows how to police the people who handle his work. If you fool around with his prices, you're out. What he does is to sell some graphics very fast, then withhold enough so that when the price goes up, and it invariably does with his work, there he is sitting with a bundle of it for sale at the higher prices.
"I would think that by this time he's probably a millionaire, although I don't know that for sure. What I do know is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a very talented artist and a great businessman. And there's no denying that he is a major American artist. It's easy to see because everybody copeis him."