Visual Arts


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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anna Dooling