Born in 1937 in Breckenridge, Minnesota, Fritz Scholder knew he wanted to be an artist at an early age. It was famous Sioux painter and teacher Oscar Howe, who introduced him to modern art while he was still in high school.
Scholder finished his first year at Wisconsin State University when his family moved to Sacramento, California. He enrolled at Sacramento State University in 1957 where he studied with painter Wayne Thiebaud, who introduced him to the pop art movement and abstract expressionism. Thiebaud also arranged for Scholder’s first solo exhibition.
Scholder earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Sacramento State University. It was there that Scholder won numerous awards following his 1958 graduation from Sacramento City College. Scholder was invited to be a part of two different shows by the time he received master’s degree from the University of Arizona in 1964. After receiving his master’s degree he moved to Santa Fe to teach painting and history at the newly created Institute of American Indian Arts.
In his most famous work, Scholder began by selecting subjects from the caches of archival photographs of Americans Indians in traditional dress. The photographs inspired his1967 series depicting the "real Indian," which became an immediate controversy. Scholder was the first to paint Indians with American flags, beer cans, and cats. Scholder, however, did not limit himself to painting Indians.
After five years at IAIA he resigned and traveled to Europe and North Africa determined to make his living through his art. A highlight in 1970, include an invitation from the Tamarind Institute to do a series of lithographs called “Indians Forever.” During that time, he lectured at many universities and art conferences including Princeton and Dartmouth College and in 1972 was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to do a two-person show with artist T.C. Cannon.
In 1975, he produced his first etchings through El Dorado Press in Berkeley, California. His etchings, lithographs and photographs were an instant success, and he was featured at the Heard Museum, Oklahoma Art Institute to name a few. In 1980, Scholder announced that would no longer paint Indians; although, he occasionally returned to the subject. His “mystery women,” who are depicted as mythic figures in various settings, represent the latter part of Scholder’s career. From the 1990’s until his death, crucifixions and embracing couples also populate Scholder’s paintings.
He traveled throughout the country and world, experimenting with a diverse array of subject material and mediums. Scholder became the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees including five honorary degrees from Ripon College, University of Arizona, Concordia College, The College of Santa Fe and the first honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin, Superior. A humanitarian Award from the 14th Norsk Hostfest also followed later. Scholder has been featured in film documentaries produced by PBS and his work continues to be displayed over the world.
Fritz Scholder combined contemporary culture with tradition to capture the realities faced by American Indians. In doing this, he transformed the cliché tourist image of the Indian and forever broke the mold of what Indian painting had been. In doing so, Scholder has become one of the most transformative American artists of the last half-century. He has become a major influence for a generation of American artists and contemporary art. Scholder passed away in 2005 in Scottsdale, Arizona.