"He looked around and saw how much of the political economy of New Mexico and Arizona was based on tourism and images of American Indians," Smith says. "He felt that there was a degree of exploitation in that. He didn't want to be a party to it."
But Scholder changed his mind when he realized the images of Indians that were being done were idealized stereotypes. No one was portraying Indians as they were in the 1960s.
His decision to do so was controversial. "To show Indians in the 20th century, to show Indians in a car, to show an Indian drinking a can of beer," says Smith, "all of that was subject matter that was off limits until Scholder and his colleagues (at the Institute of American Indian Arts) began to change how Indians were represented."
His style also caused a stir. Scholder used bold, pop-art colors like orange, hot pink, purple and lime green, and expressionistic brush strokes. "He painted Indians with green faces. He painted Indians distorted. It may seem tame now, but at the time that was really startling," Smith says.
Scholder welcomed the response his art provoked. "I'm interested in someone reacting to the work and I don't much care if they react negatively or positively, as long as they react," Scholder said in a 1975 documentary about his work.
He was proud that one art dealer said "Scholder has single-handedly destroyed Indian painting," taking the comment as a compliment.
Art dealers eventually warmed to his work, and he became quite popular with collectors.
But his decision to show modern Indians grappling with personal demons--a drunken Indian staggering down a sidewalk for example--was not widely embraced.
"Most Indians at the time hated it at first, and many still do," says curator Paul Chaat Smith, who adds his own mother "still hates Scholder's work and wouldn't come to the show except that I was curating it."
For more on the subject, see Scholder's Con Game and "Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian."
Below: Monster Indian, 1968. Oil on canvas. 18 x 20 inches. Collection of Loren and Anne Kieve.