When Fritz Scholder arrived at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1964, he swore he would never paint a Native American figure.
The artist who would catapult Indigenous art into a contemporary realm believed its portraiture had devolved into a romantic cliché.
That all changed as Scholder found himself surrounded by students from New Mexico’s pueblos. He carried his paints and brushes into the classroom, and filled his canvas with the same figures he pledged to avoid.
Scholder painted Indians with American flags, beer cans and cats. He targeted the loaded national cliché and the guilt of white culture. That subject eventually defined his work.
Open at Santa Fe’s LewAllen Galleries through Oct. 2, “Fritz Scholder: Works on Paper” showcases from 15-20 of the artist’s prints, paintings on paper and collages. The works reveal his use of distortion of the human figure in a warped, non-naturalistic portrayal as he explored themes of identity and psychology. Scholder created most of the prints at Albuquerque’s Tamarind Institute.
One-quarter Luiseño, a California Mission tribe, Scholder disrupted comfort zones by rawly exposing issues of alcoholism, unemployment and cultural differences.
He wanted to capture Native lives in modern society.
But that decision to paint politically-charged subject matter was secondary to his love of color and focus on composition. By the time he entered the Indian art world in 1961, his style and color had been heavily influenced by the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and the raw portraiture of Francis Bacon.
When Tamarind moved to New Mexico from Los Angeles in 1970, organizers invited Scholder to create their first major edition. The exhibition includes his first Albuquerque project with the print suite “Indians Forever.”
“I think he saw himself as a kind of disrupter,” said Alex Gill of LewAllen Galleries. “At that time, there were so many stereotypes of not only American Indian people, but what American Indian art should look like. He liked to confront the things people take for granted.”
“Buckskin Indian,” a color lithograph from 1974 created at Tamarind, features three colors in a magenta background.
“In the hands and faces, he’s using washes, which is technically difficult,” Gill said. “There’s no going back; you have to be spontaneous and careful. You have to engage with this tension of preplanning and spontaneity.”
“Wild Indian,” another Tamarind lithograph from 1971, depicts a warped face sinking into a blanket.
“There’s some very expressive mark-making in there,” Gill said. “He’s working additively and subtractively with the crayon and the stone. It’s very emotional and abstract.
“His use of color is in-your-face,” Gill continued. “It grabs your attention. He didn’t want his work to slip into the background; he wanted to confront you. You can see an artist who is really confident in himself.”
As Scholder aged, he dove into images derived from mysticism and the occult, such as “Fallen Angel #7,” from 1994 and 1993’s “Man Horse #1.”
“Fallen angels are sort of divine and evil,” Gill said. “There’s this conflict between the light and the dark.”
The works conjure existential and psychological overtunes.
“He loved the occult,” Gill said. “He had an antique vampire slaying kit. He owned an Egyptian sarcophagus. He saw it as part of the culture and the way people dealt with the unknown.”