A Tribute to Fritz Scholder
He was private, brilliant, dark and mercurial. There are men who come among us, change our perception of the world, and depart too soon—before we can take possession of them. Fritz Scholder was one of these. He could not be taken possession of. In no sense did we own him. He was a mask of himself. He spent a lifetime shaping the mask, and it remains as a production of art that is extraordinary and unique.
“Great” is a word that I don’t use often. A work of great literature is not only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, but it has also a worth that cannot be calculated. That essential quality we can call greatness. A great painting is not merely one that you can live with; it is one that involves you, that draws you into it by means of its power. It dares you to resist it. You do not tire of looking at it, into it, for each time you behold it you see something that you have not seen before.
In Fritz Scholder’s paintings there is an energy that is so vital that it seems to renew itself constantly. It is a dark energy, the energy of a shaman, and a shaman is what Fritz was and will always be in his art. And to the extent that his shamanism is informed with humor, he was also a koshare, one of that ancient society of clowns who can represent revelry and death at the same time. We can see the mask clearly, but we cannot see clearly what is behind it. In so many of Fritz’s works, mystery is stock in trade.
The only anthropomorphic figure among the animals painted in the caves at Lascaux, France is a man with the head of bird. It is arresting, disturbing, mysterious, otherworldly. It was painted by a shaman thousands of years ago. In some strange warp of time, I think Fritz might have painted it. Surely his signature is somewhere there.
Fritz and I came together many times in many places over the years. He was truly a man of parts. He was a thinker, a reader, a kind of vagabond who traveled the world over. He was intensely curious about everything, and very little escaped his eye. He never grew old or static or predictable in his work. He was ever breaking new ground.
Fritz did not paint in any conventional way. He painted large and loose. He did not color within the lines. He was fond of splashes and blotches, drips and drops. He was not so much interested in rendering the beautiful as he was in expre
ssing powerfully the powerful, the ambivalent and the disturbing. He did not lift the spirits, he awoke them, sometimes he assaulted them. And what he did, he did deliberately, and he did it better than anyone else.
I think Fritz must have read Kafka and found him a kindred soul. Kafka had no use for happy art. “A book must come like a blow to the head,” he said. “It must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Fritz might well have thought of paintings in the same way.
On one of the walls in my home is “Death as Woman,” a seated nude whose head is a skull. When I first saw it in a gallery, I was struck by it and could not turn away from it. The subject is both alluring and unsettling. Its attitude, and the attitude of the artist towards it, is profound. The background is of a palette that is both of the earth and ethereal. Everything on the picture plane is of a piece, a mystery and integrity that are ineffable. The painting defines greatness.
The other day my wife Barbara said something about Fritz that seemed especially insightful. She said, “He is like black mercury.” She meant that he was and is in some essential way illusive. Yes, I thought, you do not see him coming, but he is there.
It is especially appropriate that we should remember Fritz Scholder here at the IAIA, where he began so important a journey and where his legacy is passed directly to those who will follow his magnificent example. Thank you all, and thank you, Fritz. It is simply good to have you with us.
N. Scott Momaday
Remarks, Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico
March 12, 2005