Fritz Scholder was born in Breckenridge, Minnesota. He was the fifth consecutive male of his family to bear this name. His paternal grandmother was a member of the Luiseño tribe of Mission Indians. Although Scholder did not consider himself an Indian, he was regarded by many as a leader of the New American Indian Art movement.
Throughout his childhood, the painter's family moved frequently, living mostly in small towns in the Dakotas and Wisconsin. In the long winter evenings, young Fritz amused himself by drawing, an interest that was soon channeled into serious art study. The painter Oscar Howe, a Sioux Indian, introduced him to modern art while he was still in high school. In 1957, the family settled in Sacramento, where Scholder earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Sacramento State University. At Sacramento, the painter Wayne Thiebaud exposed Scholder to the Pop Art movement. Thiebaud also arranged Scholder's first solo exhibition.
After graduation, Scholder taught public school in Sacramento. In 1961, he won a scholarship to the Southwest Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona, where he earned a Master's of Fine Arts degree.
From 1964 to 1969 he taught painting and art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From the beginning, he struggled to represent the landscape and people of the Southwest without indulging in the romantic clichés of genre art on the Native themes. In time he created an extraordinary fusion of abstract expressionism, surrealism and pop art to express his unique vision of the Southwestern scene and the Native experience.
Early in his career, he received support from the Rockefeller, Whitney and Ford Foundations. After five years in Santa Fe, he retired from teaching to paint full-time. For the next few years he traveled in Europe and North Africa.
He added sculpture and printmaking to his activities, creating mixed media constructions, bronzes, lithographs, etchings and monotypes. From the beginning, he created works in series: women, landscapes, Indians, butterflies, cats, dogs, dreams, the Empire State Building, ancient Egypt.
Beginning in the late '60s, Fritz Scholder was a guest artist or artist-in-residence at American University, Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, the Oklahoma Arts Institute, Santa Fe institute of Fine Arts, and Dartmouth College. He received grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as arts organizations in France and Germany. For many years, he maintained his primary residence in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Over a dozen books have been published on Fritz Scholder and his work, and he has been profiled in two documentaries for public television. In a single year, exhibitions of his work were seen in Japan, France, China, Germany and at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Fritz Scholder died in 2005 at the age of 67. Since his death, interest in his work has continued to grow. In 2008, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian mounted a career retrospective of his work, with exhibitions in both New York City and Washington, D.C.