By Gussie Fauntleroy
R.C. Gorman, his eyes revealing a sly smile beneath his trademark headband, loved surveying a crowd of friends and admirers and telling his stories. Like this one: One day a Los Angeles gallery was having an opening for a show of his work. Gorman was rushing to get there on time, but the closer he got to the gallery, the worse the traffic became. When he finally hurried into the art space he apologized for being late—and discovered that the traffic jam was caused by people coming to see him.
That story is quintessential Gorman. It speaks of his enormous popularity, which regularly resulted in lines stretching three blocks from a gallery door. It reveals his huge delight in being rock-star famous. And it expresses the legendary sense of humor that was at once a very Navajo trait and also a bridge that brought together people from many different worlds.
When Gorman died on November 3, 2005, at age 74, he left behind an immense body of work more diverse and historically referencing than many are aware. He left a larger-than-life-size hole in the soul of the Taos art scene and, beyond that, in the world of contemporary American Indian art. And he left a legacy that young artists today may take for granted, but which 30 years ago was no small achievement: Along with his contemporary, Fritz Scholder, Gorman opened doors for Native artists to express themselves in any way they wanted—and have a good time doing it.
“He broke the mold. In the 1970s there was a burst of new Indian artists doing fabulous work, and it wouldn’t have happened without Gorman and Scholder,” says Virginia Dooley, who helped Gorman run his art business beginning in 1972 and continues as director of the R.C. Gorman Navajo Gallery in Taos. Adds Susan Hallsten McGarry, an author and freelance curator in Santa Fe, “These were people—right up there with Georgia O’Keeffe, in a sense—who gave other artists permission to be themselves. Suddenly it became possible to do what one wanted to do, because famous people were out there doing it.”
Gorman paved the way in concrete terms as well, through his renowned generosity. He paid for piano lessons for gifted nephews and nieces and sent other relatives to Europe to experience the larger world. He constantly encouraged young people to get an education. He supported numerous scholarship programs, and in 2003 donated his extensive personal library to the Navajo tribe’s Diné College. For several years after opening the country’s first-ever American Indian-owned gallery in 1968, Gorman represented more than 50 artists, most of them American Indian. (He later let go all but the best-selling artist, himself.) Dan Namingha (Hopi/ Tewa), now an internationally acclaimed artist, had his first solo show at Gorman’s gallery in 1973. “He was very helpful early in my career. I thank him for that,” Namingha says.
Rudolph Carl Gorman, the son of Carl Nelson Gorman and Adele Katherine Brown, was born in 1931 in Chinle, AZ, and grew up on the Navajo reservation acquainted with hunger and hardship. During World War II his father, an artist, was part of the Navajo Code Talkers—Marine radio operators who helped foil the Japanese by communicating information in their Navajo tongue. In a 1988 Southwest Art article, R.C. Gorman related how “as a child with no equipment, I made my own charcoal, drew on cardboard boxes, in the sand, the mud, in Chinle Wash, on rocks and sand dunes. And by the light of a kerosene lamp in a hogan.”
Gorman attended Northern Arizona University then enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1951, later studying art in, among other places, Mexico City, Mexico, where he was powerfully affected by the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamayo. Not only was he drawn to their strong artistic styles, but also he was impressed with how they proudly portrayed their own people. At Mexico City College, Gorman was trained in the academic tradition, drawing and painting from live models—a practice he continued throughout his career.
During his artistically formative years in the 1950s and ’60s, Gorman lived for a while in San Francisco, CA. There he soaked up the bohemian spirit of the artists and Beat poets in full creative rebellion against what had come before. He worked as an artists’ model, a job that allowed him to listen in on instruction by a variety of artists. This period saw him engaged in lively experimentation in an array of media and styles. He eventually made his home in Taos in the 1960s. Reflects McGarry, “He did everything under the sun before he eased into the simplified, elegant, dramatic style we know him for. I always took him seriously. He could draw like nobody could draw.”
Dooley believes, “That’s why The New York Times dubbed him the Picasso of American art,” referring to a 1973 article at the time of Gorman’s inclusion as the only living artist in the exhibit Masterworks from the Museum of the American Indian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “It was his drawing. He would never start a drawing without a model,” says Dooley. Gorman, who avidly admired Picasso, compared himself with the great Modernist in a lighthearted way. He is said to have declared that just as Picasso had his Blue Period and his Pink Period, “I have two great periods, too: R period and C period!”
The degree of diversity in Gorman’s oeuvre was apparent in his first major retrospective in 1988 at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. Among the early works represented were a painting in the traditional Santa Fe Indian School style, a Picasso-like self-portrait, an abstract expressionist painting, and a surrealist piece à la Salvador Dali featuring a Pueblo pot shattering into flying shards.
Gorman has also been called the Warhol of American Indian art, notes Bob Ewing, a longtime friend of Gorman’s and former director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. “He had a wonderful art collection, including Picasso prints and Warhols,” Ewing relates. “Of the two he was probably more like Warhol, attracted to Pop art and knowing how to sell himself as well as his work.”
The wildly successful selling of R.C. Gorman included magazine ads in Taos featuring photos of Gorman on a bearskin rug and Gorman on a camel, and a billboard just outside Albuquerque with the enigmatic question: “Who is R.C. Gorman?”
The artist eventually became best known for his elegantly stylized portrayals of strong Navajo women—in media as diverse as oil, acrylics, pastel, stone lithography, ceramics, cast paper, and bronze. The artworks have always sold themselves, observes Mark Prather, owner of Adagio Gallery in Palm Springs, CA. Adagio dedicates 7,000 square feet of gallery space to its annual Gorman exhibition, which has opened on Presidents’ Day weekend for the past 26 years. Every year, the gallery sells $350,000 to $450,000 worth of Gorman art on the show’s opening weekend alone, with Gorman’s ceramics going for up to $4,500 each, lithos for up to $8,000, and original paintings for up to $60,000. Until his death, Gorman was there every year, basking in the attention of as many as 1,500 attendees and patiently signing hundreds of posters, calendars, and books.
Among those most drawn to Gorman’s work—which can be found as far away as Europe’s Musee Municipal de Saint-Paul de Vence—over the years have been “people who had come to the Southwest for the first time and found his imagery to be a sign of the complexity of New Mexico culture,” analyzes Joe Traugott, curator of 20th-century art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Some longtime collectors, such as Wally Kanowitz of the Palm Springs area, are enchanted with Gorman’s use of color. This often includes exquisitely delicate color gradations produced through stone lithography, a labor-intensive, hands-on printing process.
Gorman’s principle master printer for the past 15 years was Richard Newlin, who with Yoko Saito owns Houston Fine Art Press. Newlin accompanied Gorman on trips to Japan, where the artist did woodblock prints, and to printing workshops around Europe. “People want to know if Gorman did every single last bit of the print,” Newlin says. “No. There were aspects he just had no interest in doing, like background and filler. What Gorman was, at all times, was a creative mind. He wanted to create the centerpiece for the table; he wanted to rearrange the furniture and create the dishes. He didn’t want to do the digging to lay the pipes.”
One of Gorman’s most important creations, of course, was himself: the magnetic, bigger-than-life persona that pulled in everyone from regular folks to Hollywood celebrities—among his famous friends and collectors were Elizabeth Taylor, Danny DeVito, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Gregory Peck. Stephen Parks, owner of Parks Gallery in Taos and author of the 1983 book R.C. Gorman: A Portrait, sees Gorman, “with his headband, his tailored suits, his Hawaiian shirts—that strange, ecstatic mix of Native and sophisticate,” as perfect for free-thinking Taos, and a figure whose presence will be deeply missed.
Dooley reflects, “R.C. never gave up being Navajo, which means privacy and loyalty to family and tribe.” But he also got a kick out of being well known, even as far afield as Bangkok, where someone once recognized him on the street. He often invited friends and collectors to his home north of Taos, with its indoor pool and extensive collection of art. “He loved good food, loved to laugh, loved life to the hilt,” Dooley says, “and the world came to him.”
Featured in March 2006