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A Surprising Portrait of Fritz Scholder, the Nation’s Most Celebrated Native American Artist Opens in New York

September 5, 2008

Fritz Scholder’s (1937-2005) depiction of American Indians in the 1960s and ’70s made him the most successful and highly regarded painter of Native Americans in U.S. history.

Scholder was a versatile artist, however, inspired by more aesthetic ambition than could be contained by any one subject matter. Beginning Nov. 1, 2008, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, presents another side of the artist’s work; works of art referencing the erotic and unconscious, created over nearly three decades. “Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian” remains on view through May 17, 2009, at the New York museum.

As part of an unprecedented two-city retrospective organized by NMAI, the nine-month-long exhibition assembles works of art created by Scholder after 1980, the year he announced that he would no longer paint Indians. Largely drawn from private collections and including a good number of unpublished pieces, the 28 paintings, sculptures and monotypes on view in the museum at Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan, will surprise many viewers who think they know Fritz Scholder.

In thickly painted, darkly saturated canvases selected from the artist’s “dream” series, a man and a woman are shown melded together in an embrace whose voraciousness brings to mind the work of Edvard Munch, an association heightened by another nearby painting that reflects the artist’s interest in the occult and shamanism, “Vampire Kissing Fallen Angel No. 1” (1997). Still another major work, a large-scale triptych entitled “Possession on the Beach” (1989), places Scholder’s recurrent motifs of reclining female nude and male angel in uncomfortable, ambiguous juxtapositions.

Dominating the first-level entrance to the museum, symbolically and literally, is “Future Clone” (1999), an eight-foot-tall bronze sculpture. An androgynous angel figure is perched atop a sphere, wings, face and globe washed white with the same agitated, textural touch the artist brought to his paintings.

In another highlight, in an unflinching reckoning with aging and infirmity, Scholder depicts himself seated, attached to an oxygen tube, holding a cane and wearing sunglasses in a darkened room. “Self Portrait with Grey Cat” (2003) was the last of many self-portraits Scholder created over his 40-year career.

The Washington, D.C., portion of this retrospective, on view on the National Mall, presents a broad overview of the artist’s works, including many of the paintings of Native Americans for which he is best known. Fritz Scholder was one-quarter Luiseño (a California mission tribe), although he himself always explained that he was as much German and French as Native American.

“Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian”has been organized by Truman Lowe (Ho-Chunk), curator of contemporary art, and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), associate curator, National Museum of the American Indian. The two-city retrospective is accompanied by a comprehensive 200-page book, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, and includes contributions by Sims, Lowe, Smith and Heye Center director John Haworth (Cherokee).

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has been exhibiting modern and contemporary Native art since the opening of the George Gustav Heye Center in Lower Manhattan in 1994. Its Contemporary Arts Initiative also has showcased the work of Native American artists in its main museum in Washington, D.C.

Established in 1989 through an Act of Congress, the National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The museum includes its flagship museum on the National Mall; the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent museum; and the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Md.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center is located at One Bowling Green in New York City, across from Battery Park. The museum is free and open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Thursdays until 8 p.m. Call (212) 514-3700 for general information and (212) 514-3888 for a recording about the museum’s public programs. By subway, the museum may be reached by the 1 to South Ferry, the 4 or 5 to Bowling Green or the R or W to Whitehall Street. The museum’s Web site is

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Ann Marie Sekeres
(212) 514-3823