Walking in Michael Gorman’s sun-filled, laid-back gallery, one can see into three generations of his Navajo family’s collection. The Gorman family line is an eclectic mix of military heroism, soaring visual art success — and controversy.
Michael is the nephew of international art star, Rudolph Carl “R.C.” Gorman (1931-2005).
The second annual R.C. Gorman Days celebration is planned this weekend (July 26-28) in the emerging Main Street District of Taos. The event spearheaded by the Taos Arts Council encompasses various talks, historic walking tours on Ledoux Street and “Past Meets Present” pop-up art exhibit outside at the Blumenschein Home and Museum’s courtyard from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (July 27-28).
There is every right for Michael Gorman, the Taos Art Council, the Harwood Museum of Art and others in Taos to honor R.C.’s legacy. His larger-than-life persona was known the world over. His artwork is found in major museums, galleries and exclusive private collections. The New York Times referred to him as “the Picasso of American Indian artists.” But, the reality is that his life was touched by controversy that continues to hang over him like a fog refusing to burn off.
In his later years, R.C. was accused of pedophilia and investigated by the FBI. Although the case was dismissed, innocent until proven guilty still leaves room for a marred reputation.
According to reports in KRQE-TV, channel 13, and the Santa Fe New Mexican in 2006, the FBI “uncovered credible evidence that Gorman participated in child sexual abuse.” The report said, however, that the five-year statute of limitations on criminal prosecution had expired on the “only provable cases,” according to media reports at the time. The U.S. attorney for the New Mexico district at the time, Norman Bay, said continuing the investigation would make it appear that Gorman “was targeted … based upon his prominence.”
In an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican in 2006, Virginia Dooley, who managed Gorman’s career for 35 years and was the personal representative of his estate, stated that she did not believe the allegations. “It’s just because Gorman was a famous person, and people like to hit on famous people.”
Gorman’s purported alcoholism may have in the end shortened his life. The New York Times’ Margalit Fox spoke to the cause of death as “pneumonia following a blood infection for which Mr. Gorman had been hospitalized since September.” Many Taoseños accept this with a shrug of the shoulders.
“There are plenty of things that are controversial about his life, but it is not critical to our R.C. Gorman exhibit,” remarked Juniper Manley, executive director of the Harwood Museum of Art. “We want to support R.C. Gorman Days and work in tandem with the Taos Arts Council in bringing people to our wonderful [Ledoux] street.”
R.C.’s estate dragged through probate like a thirsty three-legged camel looking for water. When the dust settled, his four siblings each received $77,500 – 22 percent of what was left of the estate, according to Taos News writer J.R. Logan.
Michael Gorman conjectures, “There are some amazing artists here that have been bringing artists to Taos, but I’m not sure if there was anyone who has been as successful as R.C. was in building an economy around the art for the length of time that he did from 1968 to 2005 – bringing in the New York art scene, the San Francisco art scene, the Philadelphia art scene.”
According to Michael, R.C. opened up the first Native American art gallery in the United States in 1968, calling it the Navajo Gallery.
Paul Figueroa, president of the Taos Arts Council, says that the second annual event flows from the R.C. Gorman proclamation read last year. The event was created “to acknowledge and celebrate the life of R.C. Gorman and his impact upon Taos and its community and the legacy of his family in the art and heritage of the Southwest.”
The Gorman family is such a part of both Americana and Native American history that it is hard to know where to begin. One thing is for certain: R.C. Gorman is at the epicenter of the dynamic familial swirl.
Both Michael Gorman and Paul Figueroa glossed over issues that continue to shadow R.C’s legacy, preferring to change the focus back to the artist’s prodigious economic contributions to Taos in general.
Michael’s earliest memory of R.C. is painting alongside with him in his studio, a converted garage. “I had a little studio section, little easel, some watercolors,” remembers Michael. Michael and his mother, Zonnie, lived in the same house with R.C. on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
“I knew him as Uncle R.C.,” says Michael fondly. “He was a big father figure in my life.”
Reach back two generations to Michael’s grandfather, and R.C.’s father, and you find Carl Nelson Gorman.
Also an artist, Carl Gorman was one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers in World War II, for which he posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. His wife, Mary, received the medal in his honor. Gorman Sr. died at 90 in 1998.
According to The New York Times obituary, Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr. writes, “Mr. Gorman spent much of World War II in the Pacific on his belly at the front lines, with a radio rather than a rifle in his hands, just as other Navajo volunteers did, making sure that the vaunted Japanese code crackers, who broke the Army, Navy and Air Corps codes, would never learn anything from intercepted Marine radio messages.”
When Carl Gorman came back from the Pacific theater, he attended the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles County in California on his G.I. bill. He entered the art world with his pioneering drive refusing to create flat, two-dimensional pieces of bows and arrows, pottery and sand painting.
Instead, he experimented with ceramics, tile, silk-screening and jewelry design. In Michael Gorman’s gallery you can see his horse paintings. Carl Gorman painted horses with modernistic thick outlines and minimal depiction, creating the horse as a lovely and intimate creature. He opened the door for many Indian artists including his world renowned son.
R.C. Gorman stood on his father’s tall shoulders and in the 1970s began his trajectory into the international art scene.
The rest you might say is history. He made an impressive fortune selling paintings and lithographs of dignified Navajo women wrapped in blankets, largely due to a lovely reverence imported from R.C. Gorman’s hand. He managed to bring Native American art into the late 20th century in such a way as to elevate the Southwest and popularize its tribal feminine mystique.
In the 1970s, his fame soared. Pop art icon Andy Warhol even painted R.C. Gorman’s portrait. And, with success came legendary soirees.
“I was not privy to those parties,” muses nephew Michael Gorman. “I think one of the special things about Taos is from talking to people and what I understand is that R.C. was really good at making people drop their facades, people could be themselves.”
From the early ‘70s on R.C. Gorman’s star skyrocketed. He was known to be a prolific artist and a rich man who partied with Elizabeth Taylor, Warhol, Bianca Jagger and many of the other jet-setters who frequented Studio 54 in New York City – the place to see and be seen. But, in an even more important way, R.C. Gorman also helped make Taos the place to see and be seen as well.