Printmakers You Should Know: Fritz Scholder

Last month we looked at this work of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an artist who synthesizes modern and postmodern aesthetics to explore the complexities of American Indian identities, cultures, and histories. Today we'll take a look at another seminal artist who challenged the stereotypes of the American Indian within the broader cultural consciousness, Fritz Scholder (1937-2005).

Born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, Scholder was one-quarter Luiseno, a California Mission tribe. Interested in art from an early age, he studied under Arthur Kruk, James Grittner, and Michael Gorski at Wisconsin State University before relocating with his family to Sacramento, California. There, he studied with painter Wayne Thiebaud, best known to the public for his paintings of pies, cakes, and other objects. He also met Llyod Kiva New, a Cherokee designer, and studied for a time with Charles Loloma, a Hopi jeweler. He later went to Tucson, earning his MFA from the University of Arizona. In addition to studying with the likes of Andrew Rush and Charles Littler, he met Bruce McGrew and Max Cole. In 1964, he began teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, which had recently been established. He would resign from the position in 1969, though he would return to Santa Fe after traveling in Europe and North Africa. 

As an artist, Scholder worked in an expressionistic mode, creating abstracted as well as pop-influenced paintings. His landscapes in particular are pure abstraction, defined by color and brushwork rather than the usual iconography of trees, grass, or hills. 

What Scholder is best known for, however, is his complex interpretation of the American Indian. Not being raised on a reservation or a similar environment, Scholder developed a unique perspective on his heritage, existing in a liminal space between American Indian culture and mainstream society. This perspective undoubtedly fueled his ability to subvert persistent stereotypes.

As a printmaker, Scholder focused primarily on lithography, though he also worked in etching. Taking advantage of the medium's versatility, Scholder created expressionistic lithographs similar in tone and aesthetic to his painting, with his compositions defined by bold colors and loose fluid forms.

Bicentennial Indian, 1976, color lithograph on paper, image courtesy of

From a printmaking standpoint, the series that put Scholder on the map was his Indians Forever Portfolio, completed at the Tamarind Institute in 1970. Tamarind had recently relocated from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, and Scholder was invited to collaborate with its master printers. The resulting lithographs are a wry confrontation of not only historical stereotypes, but contemporary ones as well, with Scholder addressing alcoholism, poverty, and other contemporary issues. Challenging the ongoing cultural perception that American Indian cultures are forever ensconced in the 19th century, unaffected by technological and social change, Scholder wanted to portray American Indians as they appeared in the 20th century, as much influenced by changing social norms as anybody else.

Indian with Feather, 1970, lithograph on paper, image courtesy of

Indian at the Bar, 1970, lithograph on paper. Image courtesy of

Even in his depictions of traditional dances and similar rituals, Scholder infuses his work with a healthy dose of modern abstraction. Rather than focus on the details of costume and accessories, as had been the case with 19th and early 20th-century ethnologists, Scholder distills his figures into masses of line and shape, focusing on the collective energy and solidarity induced by the performance rather than the minutiae of anthropological detail. Backgrounds are similarly simplified, with pueblos reduced to a flat, plan appearance, or in some prints, eliminated altogether. The Roswell Museum and Art Center has a substantial number of Scholder's lithographs, and several are current on view in the exhibit Beyond American Indian Modernism, curated by Registrar Laureta Huit.

Dancers at Zuni, 1978, color lithograph, image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

Hopi Dancers, first state, 1974, color lithograph on paper. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

Throughout his life, Scholder maintained a complex relationship with his Indian heritage. Unlike Quick-to-See Smith, whose sense of identity is thoroughly entrenched in American Indian culture, Scholder never perceived himself as particularly Indian. Nevertheless, the outdated yet persistent stereotypes contrived by mainstream American culture inspired him to create some of the most provocative and refreshing interpretations of American Indian life and culture to come out of the 20th century. He is definitely a printmaker you should know.

Self-Portrait with Hat, 1975, color lithograph, image courtesy of

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