I had the opportunity this week to travel to Washington, D. C., and spend some time at the National Museum of the American Indian, the most recently completed of the Smithsonian Museums, and one that, especially in its early days, met with quite a bit of criticism (a New York Times article from 2004 entitled “Museum With an American Indian Voice” provides a concise summary of that criticism).
The National Museum of the American Indian, Looking Back Toward the Washington Monument:
What attracted me to the museum was a special exhibit, an exhibition of the work of artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) that was quite comprehensive, ranging from his early work to his controversial paintings of Native Americans (such as Indian With Beer Can, Monster Indian, Massacre at Wounded Knee) from the 1960s and 1970s to his dark and disturbing later work, which often employed images of vampires and angels, skulls, and involved meditations on mortality and death.
Of the later work, his Blood Skull series (2001) is particularly interesting, in part because of the material he used to create the drawings: his own blood mixed with Diet Coke and brushed on note paper from a motel. The series of abstractly drawn skulls is disturbing enough, and it was certainly odd to see Blood Skull No. 1 as a t-shirt design in the museum gift shop. However, all the reproductions of the drawings (including the t-shirt) I have seen have been cropped, cutting off the printing on the motel note paper, which, I think contributes to the ghastly humor of the piece. At the bottom of the page is printed “For Reservations” followed by a 1-800 number, and the double meaning of the word “reservations” for a native artist shifts the meaning of the drawing from a meditation on personal mortality toward social critique. There may be copyright issues, or issues with the motel chain, that have caused the cropping of the drawings in reproductions, but words (which are employed infrequently but strategically in his paintings and in his titles) seem important to Scholder’s aesthetic, and I’m glad I was able to see the Blood Skull series at the exhibit, with each piece displayed in full and not cropped.
One of Scholder’s sculptures, Obelisk, 1987, is on permanent display on the museum’s grounds, its dark color an appropriate counterpoint to that other Washington obelisk.
The title of the NMAI exhibition is Fritz Scholder Indian/Not Indian, an appropriate title given the questioning of identity and the posing of the paradoxes of identity that Scholder’s work addresses. Scholder was an enrolled member of the Luiseno, a tribe of California Mission Indians; he was born in Minnesota, his father half-German and half-Luiseno, his mother white. Trained as an abstract expressionist, his early work did not address “Indian” subject matter, a subject he began to work with while studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in the 1960s.
His approach, which involved questioning romantic depictions of American Indian life, attacking dominant cultural stereotypes, questioning notions of authentic or essential identity (thus the appropriate paradox of the Indian/Not Indian exhibition title), often offered something to offend Natives and non-Natives alike. This was really a thought-provoking exhibit, and I’ve included several links below to articles with more complete reviews of the exhibition and which also include on-line reproductions of Scholder’s fascinating paintings.
Fritz Scholder biography from the Fritz Scholder website.
Indian or Not? Fritz Scholder’s Art and Identity. This is the transcript of an excellent report from NPR’s All Things Considered, available also as a download.
I would also recommend K. Kimberly King’s article on the exhibition for Artcyclopedia.
Also of interest is an Academy of Achievement interview with Scholder from 1996.
And, finally, The New York Times obituary for Scholder, published Februrary 14, 2005.