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

WASHINGTON.- 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 Largely drawn from private collections and including a good number of unpublished pieces, the 28 paintings, sculptures and monotypes on view in the museum at Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan, will surprise many viewers who think they know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).

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