Marilyn Butler remembers reading the handwriting on the wall. It was early 1989, and she was putting together an invitational show of landscape paintings at the gallery she owned in Santa Monica. She called a neighboring gallery to borrow one of its pieces. Such intergallery borrowings are common in the art world, and are done as a matter of professional courtesy.
This time, though, the gallery owner turned her down. "He said, `As long as you show Fritz Scholder and have his work hanging in your gallery, I'm not going to show any of my artists with you.'"
THAT FRITZ SCHOLDER is a commercially successful painter there is no doubt. The Scottsdale artist's paintings have been auctioned at Christie's in New York for as much as $34,000, and he has been paid the ultimate tribute of having forgeries of his works on the market.
Fritz Scholder, however, has stirred controversy throughout his entire career. While he was making his reputation in the 1970s, the controversies centered around what has become his most famous work--the Indian series, which included images of Indians with beer cans, or wearing full dance regalia while eating ice cream cones. Such pictures were thought to be disrespectful to Native Americans, even though Fritz Scholder is himself one-quarter Indian, and has taught at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
Today, Fritz Scholder is somewhat less high-profile, but no less able to inspire disagreement. While he is considered the progenitor of the modern Indian painting movement, and regarded by some as America's foremost Indian artist, an equal number of people look at him as a man who has "gone commercial" and become a shameless publicity seeker. A fair number of people in the art world dismiss him entirely, and at least one Phoenix art expert calls him the Southwest's most overrated painter.
Today, Fritz Scholder is an actor in a long-running drama that involves the owner of the gallery that had represented him for a decade, Marilyn Butler.
Fritz Scholder was the major reason Marilyn Butler closed down all three of her art galleries within a six-month period last year and is now working as a freelance consultant. How Marilyn Butler Fine Art went out of business in Scottsdale, Santa Fe and Santa Monica affords not only a glimpse into the catty and sometimes outright nasty art world, but also a look at how an art and an artist we cherish here are despised elsewhere.
Marilyn Butler sold the work of Fritz Scholder at her Scottsdale gallery with great success starting in 1981. In fact, that success encouraged her to open a second gallery in Santa Fe to sell Scholder, which she did in 1982. The shows she held for him at her galleries in Scottsdale and Santa Fe were the most financially successful of any she hung.
The success of those two galleries encouraged her to set her sights even higher: on the California market. She opened a gallery in Santa Monica in 1987, in a renovated Soho-style industrial building on the corner of Ninth and Colorado, in the center of what was and still is the hip area for contemporary art.
But Santa Monica is different, as Marilyn Butler found out. Santa Monica is the center of the avant-garde art scene in California now, the place where the cutting edge is sharpest.
The story of what happened to Marilyn Butler in California is the story of a local gallery trying to play in the big leagues, in Santa Monica, and failing.
Marilyn Butler had to fold because Fritz Scholder quit her gallery. He left because she lost faith in the entire enterprise. And she lost faith in the entire enterprise because when she went to Santa Monica, she discovered that the work of Fritz Scholder didn't count for anything there.
After the gallery owner refused to lend her the work for her landscape show because she carried Fritz Scholder, two other gallery owners told her the same thing.
What did that mean? Why would the presence of Scholder turn other gallery owners off? "I don't know," Marilyn Butler says with what sounds like genuine puzzlement.
MARILYN BUTLER FIRST saw Fritz Scholder's work in 1968 at a show at the Institute for American Indian Arts. She and her then-husband, she remembers, were "stunned" by the work. Scholder had begun his Indian series the previous year, and Marilyn Butler thought it was "absolutely astounding." She met the artist and bought a piece of his work, and has not wavered in her admiration for his abilities in the 23 years since.
Even today, Marilyn Butler will say that Fritz Scholder is one of the most gifted painters of the last half of the 20th century, a major artist who has not received the recognition he deserves.
When she met Scholder, Marilyn Butler and her husband were publishing lithographs. They had been among the first to patronize R.C. Gorman, publishing his work in the 1960s, although they later had a falling out with the artist.
In 1976, prompted by a divorce and the necessity of earning a living, Marilyn Butler parlayed her lithography business into a small gallery in Scottsdale. She made it a success. The first artist she represented was Earl Linderman. She moved twice to larger quarters, first to Main Street and later to Craftsman's Court.
When he joined Marilyn Butler in 1981, Fritz Scholder was the legitimate big time. He had concluded the Indian series that made his reputation, been given a major retrospective at the Tucson Museum of Art and had his portrait done by Andy Warhol.
Adding him to her stable was a coup. Scholder provided an entree for Marilyn Butler to the studios of important painters like Nathan Oliveira and Billy Al Bengsten, and his inclusion in her gallery helped attract artists such as Roy de Forest.
The 1980s was a good time for art. Marilyn Butler had shared in that ebullient market after she opened her Santa Fe gallery in 1982, and showed Fritz Scholder with success there. The signs were propitious when Marilyn Butler expanded to Santa Monica in 1987. One of the reasons she went there, she says, was to provide an additional outlet for Scholder's work in an area where people had both money and an interest in art.
Although she was able to survive there for three years, Marilyn Butler never broke into the inner circle, never managed to have the museum curators that counted wave what she calls "the magic wand" of approval over her.
She's pretty sure she knows why. Although Butler's galleries were never, either in Scottsdale or Santa Monica, "Southwestern" in the cactus-and-coyote sense, she herself was part of the Scottsdale art market, so at least some of her fellow gallery owners in Santa Monica thought of her that way. "There's a stigma that anyone from the Southwest is a hick from the Podunk sticks and doesn't know which way is up," she says.
The only artist she carried who could be specifically identified as a Southwestern artist was Fritz Scholder.
ALTHOUGH FRITZ SCHOLDER has always said he is neither an Indian artist nor a Southwestern artist, his critics have always tarred him with just those brushes. Very few people in the art world, however, either in Phoenix or in Los Angeles, will talk publicly about Fritz Scholder, unless they have flattering things to say. But some idea of how he is regarded can be gauged by the kinds of conclusions people leap to.
"I won't trash his work for you, if that's what you want," one Phoenix artist says testily in refusing to talk.
Fritz Scholder has always had a circle of faithful collectors, although sales count for little when it comes to critical reputation. But while some of the movers and shakers of the Phoenix art scene dismiss Fritz Scholder outright, he is not entirely without his defenders.
Fritz Scholder was the first artist invited to work at the important Tamarind Institute after the lithography studio moved to the University of New Mexico in 1970.
And he has enjoyed the patronage of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum included Scholder in a show with his student and fellow Indian artist T.C. Cannon in 1971. Joshua C. Taylor, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, wrote sympathetically about Scholder's work for the catalogue of the Tucson Museum of Art retrospective in 1981. One or more of his paintings is usually on display at the National Museum, and chief curator Virginia Mecklenburg considers his work "seminal."
"There are some contemporary artists who are like grandfathers in certain areas, like Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden for African-American art," Mecklenburg says. "Fritz is very much in that same line of thought. He counts for a lot."
Those are a few isolated voices, though. Conversations with gallery owners, critics and museum people in Phoenix and Los Angeles indicate that praise for Fritz Scholder is not widespread. He is not, as one man says, "in the pantheon."
Scholder is criticized by Christopher Ford, director of Santa Monica's Pence Gallery, for the "easiness" of his work. He is criticized by Irving Blum, owner of galleries in Santa Monica and New York, for "provincialism." He is criticized by Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, for never having developed a serious body of work, and for having achieved success for a variety of "tokenist" reasons. And he was criticized by Art News, on the occasion of his Tucson retrospective, for the "sameness" of his paintings, the repetition of the vertical composition with the central element, the colors always at full intensity.
Whether Fritz Scholder's work is good or not, his style certainly isn't the sort that fits in easily in Santa Monica. "In the L.A. area over the past ten years, there's been a real strong intellectual push in the work; it has an edge to it. Fritz doesn't have that," says gallery director Christopher Ford. "Most of the L.A. work is stringent and intellectual; Fritz is about form and color, and it's figurative."
Scholder looks, to put it bluntly, out of date.
"Scholder has not done anything new," says a woman who was active in the L.A. art scene and who never heard of Fritz Scholder until she moved here. "He's working in an abstract-expressionist style that'sMDRV been done for years. He's not testing, he's not pushing. "That's why he didn't survive in the L.A. art scene--L.A. thrives on being up to the minute and fashionable. L.A. is pretty way out there. But Scholder is retardataire, and his work has no impact or importance anywhere else."
And, while a sufficient number of Thursday evening art walks might leave one with the impression of a legitimate school of Southwestern art, almost no one except collectors and Ralph Lauren buy into that idea. "Southwestern art is not regarded as a genre," says the Los Angeles Times' Christopher Knight. "Basically, it's a marketing device. Art is not about the zip code in which it is made.
"There is no such thing as important quote-unquote Southwestern art. You name me a major artist coming out of the Phoenix scene--there aren't any.
"People talk about the Southwest--Santa Fe in particular--as being the third-largest art market in the United States. The problem is, they're not really talking about art; they're talking about the decorating market and the souvenir market."
A Scottsdale gallery owner who prefers not to be identified compares the market for Southwestern art to the diamond market--something that exists in a world of its own, for which demand is almost entirely artificial.
As one of the most important--and successful--purveyors of Southwestern art in both Scottsdale and Santa Fe, Elaine Horwitch can afford to dismiss much of this criticism, laughing, as it were, all the way to the bank. "We've been doing it since 1963," she says, "so I guess some of it must be valid. I'm still here."
Horwitch herself used to handle Scholder's work, and, in a more serious vein, she addresses the California critics. "Southwestern art's not important to them. They're not living and working in our part of the country. There are a lot of important artists here. They considered California art regional until the artists started showing in New York."
Despite his years of protestations, Scholder is invariably relegated to the arena of Southwestern art. This makes him, for cutting-edge Santa Monica galleries, a persona non grata.
"No one in L.A. is interested in showing Fritz's work," says gallery director Ford. "Well, he's not LeRoy Neiman, but there's a certain easiness to the work that a lot of dealers resist insofar as he can bring down the overall caliber of a gallery."
A Los Angeles art authority explains more bluntly why a dealer might refuse to lend work to Marilyn Butler while her gallery showed Fritz Scholder: "Dealers work hard to establish the reputations of their artists. They don't want them to be contaminated. Just between us, she knows damn well that's the reason."
ART GALLERIES USUALLY have one-person shows for the artists they handle every 12 to 18 months. Marilyn Butler had shown Fritz Scholder's work at her gallery in Scottsdale in March 1989, and that is why she thought November of that year was too soon to have another show, even though it would have been in Santa Monica. Fritz Scholder's collectors tend to go to his openings wherever they are, so a show in California would attract the same pool of people that the Scottsdale exhibition had drawn from less than a year earlier. Still, against her better judgment she scheduled the show. When not much sold, Fritz Scholder left. He had already given her an ultimatum. "If I leave," he says he told her, "that's the end not only of this but of all your galleries."
Fritz Scholder blames the lack of sales on Marilyn Butler's attitude. He says Butler had already lost faith in his work, and simply stood around at the opening looking unenthusiastic. "Collectors can sense if someone likes the work or not," he says. "She had a negative attitude."
Fritz Scholder has an excellent idea of the kinds of things people had been saying to Marilyn Butler, and of the doubt those things were creating in her mind.
"She realized she was dealing with the big boys and the big boys said you don't have these hot names in the gallery and Scholder is too much Southwest," he says.
"Her whole attitude changed about the work--it was almost as if she had a personality change. She didn't have that spirit. She had listened to some other people--there are a lot of what I call `art snobs' in the big art centers--and she was advised to get the new hotshots in there who were very fashionable."
Fritz Scholder also says that Marilyn Butler didn't try to promote his show, although Butler says she spent $100,000 doing just that. She hired a publicist at $2,000 a month, and took out tens of thousands of dollars in advertising. "I'm still paying it off," she says.
"The more he demanded, the more I did, and the more he'd find wrong with me. I couldn't do anything right," she says. By the time of Fritz Scholder's show in November of 1989, the artist had already decided to leave. "He said, `I'm putting you on notice that if the work doesn't sell I'm leaving the gallery,'" she remembers.
Marilyn Butler sighs wearily when she ponders why Fritz Scholder's work didn't sell in Santa Monica. "If I knew that, I would have done things differently," she says.
She never, she says, lost faith in his work. "But I did question why in the world I was there, if what I was showing would not be accepted--I certainly did question that. There was a sentiment that anything Southwestern wasn't good."
There were, of course, other factors involved in Marilyn Butler's decision to get out of the gallery business. She was tired of commuting between three houses and living out of a suitcase. She was never able to find the right person to run the Santa Monica gallery in her absence. Her lease in Scottsdale came due for renewal, and negotiations with the landlord turned into a hassle. And without Fritz Scholder, she thought, "What fun is it?"
WHEN FRITZ SCHOLDER walks along the streets of Santa Fe today, he sees paintings by younger artists that look like what he was turning out two decades ago. Sometimes he even sees his own work, stockpiled and now offered for sale. It makes him feel, he says, as if he were already dead.
He has been having that feeling lately, because Marilyn Butler and Fritz Scholder are not through with each other. Marilyn Butler has just curated a show in Santa Fe that has made Fritz Scholder very angry.
It opened at the Elaine Horwitch Gallery there in July, and it was a retrospective of the years 1967 to 1985, with an emphasis on his early work, especially the Indian series. The show was hung without Scholder's permission, and it contained work Elaine Horwitch had stockpiled over the years, as well as work borrowed from collectors. It opened a few weeks before the annual exhibition of Fritz Scholder's work at his regular Santa Fe gallery, Charlotte Jackson. That exhibition was devoted to new work. AFTER HE LEFT Marilyn Butler in 1989, Fritz Scholder took his work to the California dealer who had represented him before. Lewis Newman owns a gallery in Beverly Hills and now sells Fritz Scholder's work there.
"Beverly Hills might be a little more diverse in the types of galleries," Newman says, comparing his location with Santa Monica. "There are more commercial galleries in Beverly Hills--I don't mind saying that."
Newman's experience with Fritz Scholder's work so far has been a happy one. The gallery held a book signing for the artist a while ago, and a few days before, Scholder telephoned and asked if the gallery had any of his paintings on display. Newman arranged to have some hung, and sold $65,000 worth of art in one afternoon.
NOT THAT IT matters, but who were the fashionable names Marilyn Butler was advised to replace Fritz Scholder with at her Santa Monica gallery?
"I don't remember," Fritz Scholder says, with that well-known arrogance. "I haven't seen their names since."
"There's a stigma that anyone from the Southwest is a hick from the Podunk sticks and doesn't know which way is up."
"I won't trash his work for you, if that's what you want."
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"Southwestern art is not regarded as a genre. Basically, it's a marketing device. Art is not about the zip code in which it is made."
"If I leave," Scholder says he told Butler, "that's the end not only of this but of all your galleries."
Marilyn Butler sighs wearily when she ponders why Fritz Scholder's work didn't sell in Santa Monica.
Without Fritz Scholder, she thought, "What fun is it?