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American Expressionist

The radical work of UA alum Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) spawned a liberating movement

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Years ago, when Fritz Scholder was a grad student at the UA, he had a reputation as a bad-boy artist.

"There were a bunch of wild people over there," Scholder remembered fondly in the summer of 2002, the last time I talked to him. "This was the '60s. We scared the faculty to death."

Though he was only one-quarter Native American--a maternal grandparent belonged to the Luiseño and La Jolla tribes of California--Scholder had been recruited to study in the now-defunct Indian arts program at the UA. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the program was a "good deal," Scholder said. "They gave us supplies, studios. Rockefeller put out a lot."

But that didn't stop him from raising a ruckus when he saw unequal treatment, said his friend Miguel Juarez, a UA fine art librarian who befriended Scholder in recent years.

"He was marked as a rebel," Juarez said earlier this week.

The UA had long since mended its fences with Scholder, who died in Phoenix Feb. 10 at the age of 67. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1985 (he earned his MFA in 1964). His imposing bronze "Another Martyr #4," an abstracted Indian figure, stands outside the Main Library. The library's Special Collections displays "Border #3," a large painting evoking illegal migrants, along with some 21 lithographs. The UA Museum of Art owns eight works (not currently on view), including six lithos, a monoprint and an ink study of a nude figure.

Two years ago, UAMA planned a one-man show honoring Scholder on the occasion of his 65th birthday, but the artist abruptly cancelled the exhibition at very nearly the last minute, citing "personal reasons." Perhaps poor health intervened. His wife, Lisa Markgraf Scholder, told The New York Times that he died of complications of diabetes.

For years, Scholder fought what he called the "mislabel of Indian artist." (The Times headlined his obituary "Painter of American Indians.") He preferred to call himself an "American expressionist."

Nevertheless, it was his groundbreaking early works--depicting real-life, modern-day Indians on thick, painterly canvases--that made his reputation and got him into big-name museums from Los Angeles to Paris, including Washington's National Gallery of Art and New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"What Fritz did was a radical departure," said former UAMA curator Peter Briggs at the time of the would-be show. "He turned toward expressionism." Until then, Native American painting had been largely two-dimensional and decorative. And it tended toward a nostalgic look at a half-remembered past, of ceremonies and animals.

The artist grew up in the northern plains states, where his father, Fritz IV, was an administrator in Indian schools, but the three Scholder children were raised non-Indian and off-reservation. Fritz V studied art at Sacramento City College with the painter Wayne Thiebaud, himself noted for thick, luscious canvases, and it was not until Scholder got to Tucson that he got to know Indian artists well for the first time in his life.

After he earned his MFA, Lloyd Kiva New, who directed the Rockefeller program, invited Scholder to pick up and move to Santa Fe. There, as a young professor at the brand-new Institute of American Indian Arts, Scholder would help trigger a revolution in Indian art-making.

"Almost every painter in Santa Fe was painting Indians," Scholder remembered. "The non-Indian was painting the most ridiculous, romanticized battalion, squatting by the fire, sharpening his arrows. Just absolutely nothing to do with reality. And the poor Indian artist was caught in tourist-pleasing cliché."

Scholder couldn't resist painting the real Indian life he saw all around him, a complicated mix of the good and the bad. Debunking the typical noble savage of cowboy art, Scholder started painting Indians in a way they had never been painted before. An Indian leaning on a bar, an Indian massacred, an Indian wrapped in the American flag. And instead of working in the sentimental-realist style of cowboy convention, he slashed his paint onto the canvas with an expressionist vigor, inspired by European painters like Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch.

The uproar was immediate. The work outraged Indian elders and white merchants alike, and Scholder claimed he had to hire armed guards to protect his shows.

"He was radical," Briggs said. "He turned toward the simplification of form, paint as an expressive device, all the components of Expressionism."

Scholder's impact can hardly be overestimated. His work spawned the New Indian Art Movement, and as an influential professor, he helped liberate his students from the idea that there was only one way for Indians to paint.

"He told his students that everything's possible now," Briggs said. "It was quite a legacy." Some of the most outstanding Indian artists in their 30s and 40s were profoundly influenced by Scholder's innovations, Briggs said, including Edgar Heap of Birds, James Luna and Lorenzo Clayton.

Scholder ended his Indian series a long time ago, around 1980, and in the years since painted obsessively, dipping into everything from "Vampires" to "Mystery Women" to "Shamans" to "Conjurors" and "Martyrs." Scholder read widely and collected rare books, and his eclectic intellectual interests more often than not showed up in oil on canvas. A traveling show that originated in his home state of Minnesota several years ago featured nothing but skull art. In 2002, in New Mexico, he exhibited flower paintings made in response to the horror of Sept. 11. He crafted one-of-a-kind artist's books on his computers, combining a 15th-century aesthetic with contemporary technique. He made photographs, sculptures and prints.

But for all this avalanche of work in all media, he's still best known for those early, outrageous, painted Indians.

He said he often thought ruefully of his old teacher, Wayne Thiebaud. Critics always wanted to typecast Thiebaud as a pop artist, Scholder said. "My teacher used to say, 'You have to fight against what you become famous for.'"

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