December 09, 2008

Scholder's con game

A review of Fritz Scholder's "Indian/Not Indian" art exhibit at the NMAI:

An Artist's Identify Theft

Painter Denied Indian Ties, Yet Work Revealed ConnectionScholder, 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.
That changed as he began painting Indians in a pop style, borrowing ideas from young Indian painters. Which leads to these thoughts aboutScholder'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.
Below:  "Super Pueblo." The title suggests a comic-book influence while the style shows a pop-art influence.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Scholder is one of my favorite artists because of his color and technique. I especially appreciate his print work. The 1st pieces I had ever seen of his were non-Indian paintings and I was floored. As an American of mixed ancestry very similiar to Scholder's I can appreciate his struggle to honor as well as deny all sides of his self because in our country you are often forced to define who you are based people's perceptions of who you should be by the stereo-types created for those backgrounds. Unfortunately who we are is not only defined by blood but by environment, customs and traditions shared. He choose to expose/express that struggle visually and by doing do gave those of us with the same "issues" "permission" to do the same without fear.