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Museum Shows Work of “Indian/Not Indian” Artist


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will present a career retrospective of works by what it calls one of the most transformative American artists of the last half century, Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), officials announced.

More than 130 paintings, prints, drawings and bronze sculptures will be drawn from 40 public and private collections for the exhibition. The early works are from the late 1950s, when Scholder studied with American pop painter Wayne Thiebaud at Sacramento City College in California, and the mid 1960s, when he began to be influenced by portraits of Native Americans created by his students at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., according to the Smithsonian.

In a National Museum of the American Indian first, two “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian” exhibitions open Nov. 1 at the museum’s Washington and New York City sites.

In Washington, the National Mall museum said it would present a broad overview of Scholder’s works, including many of the revolutionary paintings of Native Americans for which the artist is best known, through Aug. 16, 2009. In lower Manhattan,  the George Gustav Heye Center will focus on works created in the 1980s when Scholder lived and worked in a nearby loft, through May 17, 2009.

“Fritz Scholder was an enormously important and complex figure in 20th-century American art and culture, yet he has never been the subject of an in-depth, comprehensive study of this magnitude,” said Kevin Gover (Pawnee/Comanche), director of the museum.

Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk), curator of contemporary art at the museum, organized the exhibition with associate curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche).

“Although one-quarter Luiseno (a California mission tribe), Scholder always insisted he was not American Indian any more than he was German or French, yet he became the most successful and highly regarded painter of Native Americans in U.S. history — a fact that raises the question of what ‘Indian art’ actually is,”  Lowe said.

Smith said the exhibit includes rarely seen paintings from private collections. “We hope to lay the groundwork for new ways of thinking about Scholder’s place in art history,” he said,

Scholder was the son of a Bureau of Indian Affairs administrator who was half Luiseno. The artist grew up in the Northern Plains, living on the campuses of Indian schools where his father worked but attending public schools. The artist once said that his father “was the product of the old Indian schools — he was ashamed of being an Indian.”)

Scholder won numerous awards following his graduation from Sacramento City College in 1958. He had been the subject of two one-man shows by the time he received his master’s degree from the University of Arizona in 1964.

He taught painting and contemporary art history for five years at the Institute of American Indian Arts, initially counseling his Native American students to avoid ghettoizing themselves by painting so-called “Indian art.”

A comprehensive 200-page book, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, accompanies the exhibition.

The exhibition presents works through 2004 — the year before Scholder’s death. Among the works from the final chapter of the artist’s life is “Self Portrait with Grey Cat” (2003), the last of many self-portraits that the museum officials said represented “an unflinching reckoning with aging and infirmity.”

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