One measure of great art is the mark it leaves on the viewer.
“Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967-1980,” showing through Sept. 18 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, altered how I see the color red.
I entered the exhibition expecting to be subsumed by transcendent and tragic narratives of the American Indian experience.
Instead, Scholder’s electrifying colors and kinetic brushwork created shock waves that had to subside before I could contemplate his figurative subjects.
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Positioned at the front of the gallery, “American Portrait With One Eye” opens the show with a cymbal-crash of riotous red bleeding onto the canvas from all four corners, enveloping and overpowering the titular subject: a one-eyed Indian with a grim, impenetrable gaze.
The sumptuous exhibition catalog by the Denver Art Museum quotes Scholder, who was one-fourth Indian but not raised in a native community, saying he wanted to portray Indians as “real, not red.”
So it is ironic that it is the red, not the Indian, that stops me in my tracks a dozen paces from the nearly 7-foot canvas. The red glows, pools and pulses, triggering an emotional brain rain of associations: love, death, danger, passion, desire, aggression. This is red as I’ve never experienced it before.
“Come closer,” urges John Lukavic, who curated the show in Denver and has come to speak at the Nerman opening on June 23. It’s hard, like breaking through an unseen force field. The red presses when approached, then recedes, making room for the Indian.
Up close, his purple face is etched with tiny pink and blue scratch lines, the corners of his seeing eye and down-turned mouth rimmed in apple green. A single black drip slides out of the empty eye socket like a tear.
Scholder, Lukavic explains, liked to say he put color first, composition second and the subject third. By focusing on technique, he was able to concentrate emotion and plumb psychological depths that would have been impossible with a more traditional approach to portraiture.
The Denver Art Museum has long been a leader in American Indian art, collecting works since 1925 and exhibiting them as contemporary art.
“Super Indian,” which debuted last year at the Denver museum, was organized around a large collection of Scholder’s Indian series paintings promised to the museum as gifts by board member Kent Logan and his wife, Vicki. The show traveled to the Phoenix Art Museum before opening at the Nerman.
Scholder (1937-2005) was born in Minnesota, one-quarter Luiseno on his father’s side and of European heritage on his mother’s side. His father did not embrace his native heritage but worked as a school administrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
His father’s job took the family to Sacramento, Calif., in 1957, where Scholder enrolled in art school at Sacramento Junior College and studied with Wayne Thiebaud, famous for his figurative paintings of cakes, ice cream cones and gumball machines.
Thiebaud’s influence can be seen in Scholder’s thickly applied paint and lush pop colors.
Lukavic says Scholder was first and foremost a colorist who used figurative art to test the limits of what paint can express. With his Indian series, now considered his best work, Scholder used the Indian subject as a way to explore color, rather than the other way around.
Lukavic calls Scholder’s Indian series one of the most important figurative painting series in American history, and yet it might never have been, had Scholder stuck to an early vow that he would never paint an Indian.
Scholder, who earned a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona, started out painting landscapes in an expressionist style.
But after accepting a teaching job at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., Scholder became frustrated watching his students struggle to find new ways to paint Indian themes. He broke his vow.
His first painting in the Indian series, “Indian No. 1,” scandalized the art world. By coloring the warrior’s face in orange and green and placing him on an abstracted flat background, Scholder destroyed the romanticized, frozen-in-time stereotype of the noble savage.
And yet, “Indian No. 1” turned out to be the most subdued portrait in the series. Later works shocked with faces contorted with trauma, evoking Francis Bacon, another strong influence on Scholder.
Scholder denied identifying as an Indian, but his clear-eyed, emotionally raw portraits reveal an intimate familiarity with his subjects and pitch-perfect understanding of the dignity and absurdity inherent in trying to preserve a native heritage in a dominant white culture.
In the iconic “Super Indian No. 2,” a seated dancer in a ceremonial buffalo headdress clutches a strawberry ice cream cone. The powerfully built Indian faces the viewer head on. One elbow rests on a knee; the dead buffalo on his head and the ignoble fate that befell it are a heavy load to bear.
Other works present scenes of quiet horror — the Wounded Knee massacre, a suicide, a dead warrior — on elegiac fields of pure color, stripped of detail.
“Scholder seduces with color, so you are drawn in, and then you realize this isn’t what you thought it was. His works are disturbing, compelling and poignant,” Nerman director Bruce Hartman says.
In “Dog and Dead Warrior,” Scholder places a sprawled figure of a pale dead warrior on a flat black background activated by a band of green at the top.
The high horizon line places the body at the viewer’s feet, confronting us with the tragedy of the massacre.
Adding a second figure, the dog, creates an unheard dialogue between the figures that amplifies the message of the work, Lukavic says.
Although Scholder insisted he was not a protest painter, “Indian Power” speaks directly to Indian activism in the 1970s: A sleek orange warrior rides a purple horse bareback, one hand clutching the mane, the other clenched in a fist reaching skyward, evoking the 1968 Olympics when U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute on the medal podium.
Also included in the show are two portraits of Scholder by Andy Warhol, attesting to the level of fame Scholder achieved during his Indian series period.
Don’t miss the lithographs
Although the large canvases in the Nerman’s first-floor gallery space are eminently satisfying and thought-provoking, head upstairs to see a collection of lithographs and a 10-minute video on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., of Scholder working in his studio and talking about his art.
Lukavic believes the lithographs reveal Scholder’s desire to refine some images originally executed as exuberant, spontaneous paintings.
“Indian at the Bar,” for example, is a poignant reworking of the painting “Indian With Beer Can.” In the four-color lithograph, Scholder has stripped away color and detail from the painting, making the Indian appear more ghostly, his eyes black voids that intensify the haunted quality of a psyche in the grip of alcoholism. All the color is concentrated in the Coors can, while the Indian becomes a receding figure in black and white.
“Super Indian” delights on two levels. Scholder’s seductive hues and bold brushwork are aesthetically pleasing for their own sake, and his spare imagery and stark compositions bestow profound and quiet dignity upon his subjects.
Created more than 35 years ago, the works exude a vitality that feels squarely at home in the present.
“Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967-1980” runs through Sept. 18 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Admission is free. For more, see NermanMuseum.org.