Last year, my best friend and I stood in front of a Fritz Scholder painting in a Scottsdale gallery. I don't recall every detail of the painting. But I remember the feeling of being smacked in the face with an electric color palette and a smash of rapid brushstrokes — colliding on canvas to create a portrait of a Native American man. And then my friend blurted, "This guy is bad­ass."

Looks like she's not the only one who thinks so. This month, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian launched a major retrospective of Scholder's work called "Indian/Not Indian," with pieces on view simultaneously at both of the museum's locations — one at the National Mall in Washington and the other at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York.

The show questions the accuracy of Scholder's characterization as a Native American artist, something Scholder — who died in 2005 — often questioned as well. But no one's questioning his worth. To quote my friend, this guy is, in fact, badass.

Last Indian with Flag by Fritz Scholder
courtesy of Larsen Gallery
Last Indian with Flag by Fritz Scholder

Scholder worked as a full-time artist for nearly 40 years, led an art movement, showed across the world, and used to hang out with Georgia O'Keeffe (among other famous American artists). It's a point of pride for Arizona that he received his MFA from the University of Arizona in Tucson and lived part-time in Scottsdale.

With all the Scholder-mania happening on the East Coast, Larsen Gallery in Scottsdale has pulled together a collection of his works. Aptly titled "Renaissance Man," the show features paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and books, largely from the 1970s and 1980s. Larsen Gallery has represented the artist for the past 16 years and had plenty to choose from. The selections focus on his Native American imagery, but the gallery was also sure to include works from other series. The show provides a nice glimpse into Scholder's long career.

The local exhibition is sort of like a mini-Smithsonian experience. The Smithsonian has more works and original paintings from Scholder's 40-plus-year career, but Larsen emphasizes the same idea: Scholder is an artist of multiple genres. He is uniquely American and should join the ranks of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and other contemporary greats. He may have used the Native American as a subject matter and gained fame for doing so, but his overall body of work earned him the right to transcend the label of "Native American artist."

Having begun his art career in the late 1950s, Scholder hit his stride on the heels of the Abstract Expressionism movement. He employed a painting style with quick and violent brush strokes, similar to Willem de Kooning. And, much like the pop artists of the 1960s, he often used symbols of mass culture to make social commentary.

At Larsen Gallery, we get to see some of Scholder's most famous works. Last Indian with Flag has a keen sense of color and energetic rendering. This serigraph (screen print) is tough to look away from. A man stands against a mustard yellow backdrop. He is painted in screaming hot pink, staring forward with a stoic gaze. His weathered skin and full-feathered headdress evoke the stereotypical Native American elder. But this guy presents a new image of an integrated culture. A vibrant red, white, and blue American flag is draped around his torso like a bath towel.

This type of work is what Scholder is known for. Born in 1937, he was one-quarter Luiseño (a California mission tribe) and three-quarters mixed Euro-Anglo descent. Growing up attending public schools in the Midwest, Scholder never felt he was an "Indian" and once said in an interview that he was "mislabeled an Indian artist."

Last Indian with Flag is from Scholder's most famous (and most controversial) series, created in 1967. With figures clad in symbols of reservation life and American mass culture, he attempted to deconstruct cliché imagery of traditional Native Americans and provide a portrait of (what he saw as) the "real" Indian. The imagery was totally unexpected at the time. And Scholder is often held up as a leader in the "New American Indian Art Movement," in which artists aim to display their tribal pride while engaging with contemporary Euro-American art movements. Their focus is on individuality rather than tribalism.

This contribution, no doubt, makes Scholder an important historical figure. And the fact that the man created compelling images is the big bonus. A large horse and rider are caught barreling toward the viewer in Galloping Indian #2. The taupe background is completely bare; all Scholder shows is the figure of the horse on the left side, its rider barely peeking over the horse's painted face and whip of a thick, black mane. With Scholder's furious, scribbling line quality, the beast looks like a blob of doughy flesh. He concentrates on the movement of the horse rather than its musculature. The effect is similar to that of a photo of someone's face, snapped in a wind tunnel — all structure and form is compromised due to the force of its rush through space.

But Scholder painted so much more than "new" Native American imagery. His voracious interest in traditional Western art, which he studied during his travels through Europe, is evident in Memories of Art History #3. The work was done in the 1980s and is Scholder's nod to the classic reclining nude. A woman lies against an open field with two trees in the distance. Her features are barely rendered in large panels of flat color with simple paint streaks delineating her body's shape. This could be a preliminary painting for one of Matisse's masterpieces. The work is simple and, though it's nothing to scream about, it shows Scholder's ongoing interest in engaging in a heavy dialogue with traditional Western art — a history that is relevant to American art, in general, not just Native American art.

It's no wonder that Scholder is primarily known for his paintings. While Larsen gets points for including the artist's other media, Scholder's sculpture doesn't hold up. Painted Man is a small bronze sculpture almost two feet tall. It's a male figure, slumped in mid-step. He's covered in panels of white, pink, green, red, and purple. The paint looks quickly applied and doesn't bring too much to the figure. But such works are important to include because they provide a more comprehensive look at the man's career.

After visiting Larsen Gallery, I'm thinking it might be time to book a flight to see my big brother in D.C.; I got a taste of this artist, but I could use the whole meal.

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