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Fritz Scholderin Galisteo

Galisteo Landscape with Trees, an oil painting from 1984, shows a stormy exit from the village, heading south. It is one of a small number of works Fritz Scholder painted of his home outside Santa Fe.

People remember the celebrity and the parties. But Santa Fe’s most controversial Native artist had another side.

BY KEIKO OHNUMA | PHOTOS BY PETER OGILVIE

Left: The artist at home in Galisteo, around 1980. He called the village “as close to the land as an artist can get.”
Middle: The entrance to Scholder’s studio, with Dying Indian, an acrylic he painted on the day he left the Institute of American Indian Arts, in 1969.
Right: Romona, an oil painting from 1975, is shown with a sculpture of the same title

Paintings, including White Girl with Cherokee Pendant from 1970, lithographs, and an etching, all from the 1970s to 1990s, are shown in the artist’s studio.

Scholder did not realize what Santa Fe had in store for him, how it would mark the turning point of his artistic career

Sleepy, windswept, and often deserted, the remote village of Galisteo, New Mexico, shows few traces today of what was once its most famous resident, an artist so glamorous he was more like a rock star. And if Fritz Scholder’s ghost still roams the grounds of his old hacienda here, it is more quiet than the painter ever was in real life.

Behind the thick adobe walls of his former home, his wife of 27 years, Romona Scholder, lives a peaceful existence in what most resembles a museum or shrine whose neatly arranged books and artifacts testify to the artist, collector, reader, and traveler that her ex-husband was. But nothing signals the big parties, admiring fans, the national éclat he sought all his life—and which seem to wait, like the house itself, for the full story of Fritz Scholder to be told.

A view of the living room in the 200-year-old adobe home includes some of Scholder’s collectibles: Indian pottery and a buffalo head.

Left: Fritz and Romona Scholder in the 1970s.
Right: Romona in Galisteo, 1983, acrylic on canvas, shows Romona and her dog Matthew in front of the house.

They hosted Jackie Onassis and her sister. According to a friend, “The whole Santa Fe party scene would transport itself here.”

Left: Priscilla’s Dog, acrylic on canvas, is one of several portraits Scholder painted of Queenie, who belonged to neighbor and friend Priscilla Hoback.
Right: Leading into the bedroom is a display of colonial Spanish religious objects, one of the Scholders’ early collecting interests.


The most controversial Indian painter America had known, and its most reluctant, Scholder was a paradox in his time, and remains one still. His story parallels the ambiguous place of Santa Fe on the contemporary art map.

He arrived in the late 1960s to teach painting at the brand-new Institute of American Indian Arts, in what was then a quiet art colony. Scholder was a product of his times: an Abstract Expressionist who studied under Wayne Thiebaud in Sacramento, California, and embraced the trends toward Pop Art, minimalism, and color field painting; he did landscapes and butterflies. Ambitious and serious, he told his Native students at IAIA they would get nowhere painting their subject matter.

Scholder did not realize what Santa Fe had in store for him, nor how it would mark the turning point of his artistic career. The Indian power movement was building energy that would stun the nation in 1969, and Scholder was readily drawn into the fiery debate and creative engagement of the “artist-warriors” at IAIA.

Revisionists today question whether he was truly an original or a follower in the move to merge modern art with Indian subject matter. There can be no question, though, that Scholder ran with it fastest and furthest, powered by the force of enormous talent and hard work. “He was ruler of the roost,” declares an old friend, Santa Fe art collector Jonathan Abrams. “There’s no question that he was the ruler of Native American art—and he loved it.”

Scholder’s jarring portraits of Indians dashed with wild brushstrokes, fields of outrageous color, and distorted proportions shocked a community accustomed to the flat, detailed, serene figures for which Indian painters had long been known. His Indian with Beer Can still raises blood pressure in Indian Country today, and nearly everyone has seen some of the startling series of Indians wrapped in the American flag.
Fritz and Romona married when he was still an unknown painting teacher, and bought a home on Canyon Road in 1969. As his fame soared, they graduated to twin adobe homes in 1972, in Galisteo and in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Arizona address gradually gained favor with Fritz, where he moved among glamorous art patrons who knew him as “the Indian Andy Warhol.”

But friends remember Galisteo, too, for its lavish soirees. Immediately upon arrival, Fritz erected a huge tepee in the yard and invited friends to sample his old family recipes, Romona recalls. They hosted Jackie Onassis and her sister and the Chinese minister of culture, with a retinue of thirty. “The whole Santa Fe party scene would transport itself here,” says their friend Priscilla Hoback, a ceramic artist who still lives across the street in the village of 150 people. Romona would bring in flamenco dancer Maria Benitez, Hoback recalls, who “would come to dance for, like, fifteen minutes on her way to something else.”

This was the Fritz Scholder that the world knew: driven by a sense of destiny, “serious about making it, becoming a famous artist,” says Romona; “a great painter but also a great salesman,” adds his friend Skip Holbrook, who taught with him at IAIA. A man who had time for everyone, “even the idiots who wanted to drape an arm around him for a photo,” says Holbrook; an artist who was “very precise about assembling a good biography.”

But recognition came at a price for Scholder, one that continues to be paid by his legacy. Lauded for his revolutionary depiction of Indians, he soon felt trapped in a Native stereotype. “I was mislabeled an Indian artist because I had done a series on the American Indian when I came to Santa Fe . . . because all painters who go to Santa Fe become immediately seduced by this very strange and foreign little town,” he said in a 1996 interview.

Although his grandmother was Luiseño (a California Mission tribe) and his father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Scholder was not “raised Indian” and did not self-identify as Native. He often remarked that he looked more Indian than he was. It was at IAIA that he first became aware of what he called “real Indians” and their “whole different mind-set.” And it was only at home, within the walled compound so far from Santa Fe that the 23-mile journey was made at night in complete darkness, that Scholder could set aside his pose of famous Indian artist—or not-Indian artist—and simply respond to what moved him.

“This was the interior side, the interior space,” Hoback says of a small number of paintings she saw that spoke of a “more intimate, vulnerable, revealing” Fritz. Paintings of animals, of Romona, or the color-field landscapes from a previous time she found moving because they were so rare. “They were so deep, an emotion so different from the fierceness of his other work—but as intense.”

During the summer months, when they were in Galisteo, Romona says she and Fritz would drive into Santa Fe for the day to take care of business, then come home for a quiet supper before he retired to the studio until midnight. “He loved painting in the evening,” she says, even though his studio was rich in natural light.

Holbrook remembers that “he was a demon in the studio.” He worked furiously and fast, leaving behind hundreds of paintings, prints, sculptures, and illustrated books. “He was a force of nature,” marvels Abrams, the collector, producing so much so fast that detractors wondered if he was “overdoing it.”

Gregarious by nature, Scholder felt immediately the isolation of their 200-year-old adobe shaded by cottonwoods on two acres near the Galisteo church. Romona recalls him lying in bed on one of their first nights in the house and wondering aloud, “Where is Thirty-one Flavors? Where is Pizza Hut?” Galisteo was then a traditional Spanish village, and none of the artists who have made it a haven—Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Woody Gwyn, John Massee, Judy Tuwaletstiwa, the critic Lucy Lippard, and Hoback herself—had yet discovered it.

“I am part of this village and I’m not,” Scholder told a New York Times reporter in 1977. “I keep open but I keep a private world. It was like stepping back in time to move here, because Galisteo . . . hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s as close to the land as an artist can get.”

As Scholder shifted his center of operations to Scottsdale, near his gallery (Elaine Horwitch), he moved away from Indian subject matter to themes that caused discomfort among his Native fans, such as death and skulls, angels and demons, and the “mystery woman” series, often illustrated from his vast collection of shamanistic, sometimes taboo objects. The artifacts followed him to Scottsdale; gone from the Galisteo home are the outrigger canoe from New Guinea, the Egyptian mummy baby in a glass coffin, and the room full of skulls described in earlier reports.

Fritz and Romona divorced in 1994, after years of living apart. With a lifelong career as a psychotherapist, Romona had remained as devoted to her patients as to being a famous artist’s wife. In 2002, Fritz married gallery employee Lisa Markgraf, just three years before his death from complications of diabetes. His widow retains the estate and most of his artwork; Romona has just the Galisteo home—
a whisper from a much earlier time, but one that feels increasingly formative.

Right: A color lithograph, The Rose, from 1980, is one of many varied flower images made over the years.
Left: Red #5, a large acrylic painting from 1994, in Scholder’s studio


Gone from the Galisteo home are the outrigger canoe, the Egyptian mummy baby, and the room full of skulls

In his old studio here, a large painting called Galisteo is displayed—one of the few from his earlier style, with bands of pure color, all observation and emotion without any of the later cynicism. A bronze bust in the garden is called simply Romona.

The house had been, from the time they saw it, Romona’s. “It’s a lovely house,” she remembers telling him, “but it’s my house.
It’s the perfect setup in the wrong place.” Fritz Scholder was just not an artist who would be drawn to privacy and isolation. “He was like, ‘Bother me, please,’” Romona says of the artist-showman. “He loved contact with other people, giving autographs; he liked that regular people saw and loved his art.”

Fritz Scholder never achieved the name recognition of some of his peers in New York, where he relocated in the 1980s to cement his success. And he remains obscure today outside the Southwest, which he took by storm in the 1970s. “I would say the career we expected of him never happened,” concludes Abrams.

But history may yet redeem the not-Indian artist, albeit under a chapter labeled “Native America.” In 2008 and 2009, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian mounted a double exhibit of his work titled Indian/Not Indian in New York and Washington—its first-ever solo retrospective—cementing Scholder’s place in Native American cultural history.

He was able to capture like no one else a moment when Indians quit assimilating and began to reclaim their traditions, the curators noted. By portraying the ambiguities of Native identity, Scholder prefigured postmodernism’s central concern with how cultural identity is constructed. In his insistence that he was not Indian—“I’m very proud of being one-quarter Luiseño,” he said in 1996, “but you can’t be anything if you’re a quarter”—he also presaged ongoing debates about what qualifies as “authentic” Indian art.

It seems clear today that Scholder was able to transform Native art precisely because he was both Indian and not Indian, seeing them from outside while being treated as inside. Romona describes his instant reaction to spotting a buffalo dancer at Santo Domingo Pueblo eating an ice cream cone, the inspiration for his Super Indian No. 2. “He picked up on that Indian-as-mythical-being and Indian-as-ice-cream-cone-eater,’” she said in 2008. “And I think that’s why this painting is quintessentially Scholder.”

He was fond of saying that the Indian is the ultimate cliché, that everything one paints has become a cliché. In his paradoxical double life, gregarious and private, the Indian Warhol and the first artist to “get” Galisteo, Scholder in his precocious identity as self-consciously Indian tried on every cultural cliché while refusing to inhabit any of them.

From the Fall 2010 / Winter 2011 issue

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