R.C. Gorman: The Early Years
"I've always felt successful. Even when I wasn't making any money, I just knew it was all there. I always believed in myself. I knew I had talent and there was just no doubt about it. I just didn't give up."
- R.C. Gorman
Photographs of Taos' Ledoux Street taken by Mildred Tolbert in 1968 show an exotic, charming, untamed, third-world, block-long, dirt path. The beginning of the street was lined exclusively with private residences with the exception of one gallery, The Navajo Gallery. Its owner was Taos legend R.C. Gorman.
The end of the road led to what was then the Harwood Library - now the Harwood Museum of Art. Imagine thevisitors to the gallery trudging down the little street with no parking and no signage - the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Onassis, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Tab Hunter, Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Peck, Lee Marvin, Senator Barry Goldwater, Arlo Guthrie, and fellow artist Andy Warhol. As Virginia Dooley writes in The Taos Diaries 1968-1998, “Whenever Gorman visited the Big Apple, Warhol gave him the grand tour a la Studio 54 and other underbelly haunts. In 1978, they mounted a successful exhibit together in New York that was jokingly referred to as the show of ‘the odd couple."
Dooley notes that visitors to the Navajo Gallery " . . . would have to find the entrance to the driveway, walk up to the gallery window, duck under a low archway into a hidden courtyard, and find the swinging door which led, finally, to a surprisingly spacious gallery. ‘Where is the Navajo Gallery?’ became the most-asked question of people roaming around with confusing street maps in hand.” If visitors managed to find the gallery, they would be greeted by a bejeweled handsome Navajo man, larger than life, surrounded by his cats, with either a Cadillac a or Mercedes parked nearby. Gorman’s charm and humor enchanted the locals. He trademarked himself with flamboyant accessories - bandana headbands, Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, beads and gold. His attire would foretell the immense popularity and celebrity that would emerge from the little dusty street in Taos.
The artist was born Rudolph Carl Gorman in 1931 in Chinle (pronounced Chin-lee), Arizona. Chinle is near the geographic center of the Navajo Nation, the largest tract of land reserved for Native Americans in the United States. Gorman was the son of Adele Katherine Brown and Carl Gorman - the reknowned artist, teacher and Navajo Code Talker. Carl Gorman was the oldest of the original twenty-nine Navajos who volunteered to form a secret division of the Marine Corps. Carl recalls that "R.C. always carried a tablet and drew, wherever we were. We were dipping sheep once, and he got a little girl to model for him. A white man working with us saw the drawing, got me, and said, 'Look. Someday he's going to be a great artist.' As a boy, Gorman modeled animals and toys out of clay from the local swimming hole. Later he drew with charcoal on rocks. When he started school and discovered pencils, papers, and books, he began drawing with abandon. His first school, Chinle Public School, was a one-room structure heated with a wood stove. He recalled that his first work of art in school was a drawing of a naked woman; it brought spankings from both his teacher and his mother.” (excerpt from R.C. Gorman: A Portrait).
In 1943, Gorman enrolled in a Catholic boarding school on the Navajo reservation. In the fall of 1944 he switched to the Ganado Presbyterian Mission School. In the seventh grade, Gorman began selling his artwork to nurses and doctors at the mission school. After graduating in 1951, Gorman joined the Navy before entering college. The Navy did not deflect Gorman’s need to draw. He sketched the girlfriends of his colleagues, collecting pocket change in exchange. At the Navy’s Guam Territorial College and later at Arizona State College (Northern Arizona University) Gorman studied literature and creative writing, always with an emphasis or minor in art.
“In the summer of 1956, he worked at Disneyland, where he dressed as a Native American and paddled a canoe. In 1958, he received the first scholarship from the Navajo Tribal Council to study outside of the United States, and enrolled in the art program at Mexico City College. There he learned of and was influenced by the work Diego Rivera. He later studied art at San Francisco State University, where he also worked as a model. R.C. worked as an artists’ model for several university and private classes throughout the Bay area. This proved an invaluable experience in his training. While posing, he wasn’t able to participate in the classes, or receive critiques from the instructors, but he listened, observed, and absorbed the knowledge of several masters.” (http://nativeamerican-art.com).
The Navajo Tribal Council awarded Gorman a grant to attend Mexico City College in 1958, shortly after he returned to San Francisco. During that time he worked as a nude model. In the bay area, he worked in a post office branch in the evenings and painted during the day. Then came a pivotal event in Gorman’s life: his discovery of Taos, New Mexico. It was love with at first sight. That year, 1964, Dorothy Brett agreed to handle Gorman's work and exhibited it at the Manchester Gallery on Ledoux Street. Gorman continued to make long trips, living and studying in San Fransisco and Mexico City. During an important visit to Mexico City in 1966, Gorman did his first work in lithography under the tutelage of noted Mexican printmaker Jose Sanchez. Back in Taos, Gorman’s shows continued to sell out. With his hard-earned money and a loan from his parents, Gorman bought the Manchester Gallery and opened the Navajo Gallery, the first Native American-owned gallery. The Navajo Gallery held its first group exhibition in May 1969. The gallery roster included Patrick Swazo Hinds, Robert Draper, Al Momaday, Helen Hardin, Pablita Velarde, Charles Lovato, Cynthia Bissell, Dorothy Brett, and R.C.’s father, Carl Gorman.
R.C. Gorman died at age 74 in Albuqurque's University Hospital. New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson, ordered that flags be flown at half-mast in Gorman's honor. During his lifetime R.C Gorman was honored in important and unusual ways, including an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, College of Ganado, Ganado, Arizona (1978), R. C. Gorman Day, State of New Mexico (January 8, 1979), Doctorate of Humane Letters, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, New Mexico (1980), R. C. Gorman Day, San Francisco, California (March 18, 1986), Humanitarian Award in Fine Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (May 1986), New Mexico’s Governor’s Award of Excellence (1988), Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona (1995), Honorary United Nations 50-year Chairman for New Mexico (1995), A Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars (2002) . Harvard University recognized Gorman for notable contributions to American art and Native American culture. Gorman was the only living artist included in Masterworks from the Museum of the American Indian, a 1973 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan bought both Gorman drawings included in the exhibition, and the New York Times dubbed Gorman “the Picasso of American Indian art.”
Gorman’s sensitive approach to human form, natural gifts, and outrageous and extravagant imagination made him one of the most influential and fascinating artists of his time. Out-glitzing the likes of Andy Warhol, Gorman turned brilliance into a commodity--often at the cost of his original raw and striking talent, and at the risk of compromising his place in the history of art.
This exhibition focuses on the years prior to Gorman’s commercial success, when - as Gorman stated - “Even when I wasn't making any money, I just knew it was all there. I always believed in myself."
- Jina Brenneman, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions