Gorman began painting at age three and was later encouraged by a teacher at the Presbyterian Mission School, Jenny Lind, to pursue a career. He attended Northern Arizona University from 1950 to 1951 and from 1955 to 1956, studying literature and art, but never received an undergraduate degree. Between his periods of study, he served for four years in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He later studied art in Mexico (1958), where studying the works of Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo changed his vision and style. In 1962 he moved to San Francisco to promote his artistic career, before moving permanently to Taos in 1968. Gorman steadily gained an international reputation over the last fifty years; his works have been widely collected and can be seen in over 100 museums in the United States, Asia, and Europe.
Gorman painted in a number of genres (water-color, etchings, acrylics, oils, paper casts, silk-screens, stone lithographs), depicting several highly stylized subjects and producing abstracts: landscapes, nightscapes, animals, spiritual beings, and people. His distinctive themes reflect important places and beings in Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, as well as times of the day and seasons reflecting and commenting on central Navajo values. His best-known works are of the female figure, often portraits of friends and relatives who are generously proportioned, barefoot, and draped in flowing traditional dresses, robes, and blankets common to the Navajo and Rio Grande pueblos. They are all women of strength and action. "I revere women. They are my greatest inspiration," he told an Associated Press interviewer in 1998 (Navajo Nation, 2005). This sentiment is appropriate for a member of a matrilineal society; Gorman depicts what is at the heart of Navajo society and culture: women. Gorman uses his grandmother as the focus of many of his early paintings and prints. Art lovers and many art critics say that his figures have mystique, character, strength, and lyricism and that he represents Native women in a positive manner, almost universalistic in intent. Other critics, however, dismiss Gorman's subject matter and painting style, with its warm, flowing lines and saturated colors, as unusually commercial, market driven, and stereotypical. They also dismiss Gorman himself as being interested in selling quantities of paintings rather than in pursuing innovative work. Gorman, in turn, satirically dismisses these later critics in his books and essays, poking fun at the pretentiousness of art criticism and connoisseurship.
Gorman in his later life was a prolific author and penned essays on Mexican art, petroglyphs, and cave paintings. He wrote an autobiography (Gorman, 1992) and a series of books on cooking and art, and he documented his genre in a series of books with several coauthors. He also reveled in his self-defined life style that some have called "bohemian"—complete with headbands and custom-tailored Hawaiian shirts (Obituary, 2005).
During the later half of his life, Gorman made his home in El Prado, New Mexico, near Taos and owned a gallery there, R. C. Gorman Navajo Gallery, in Taos, as well as the Nizhoni Gallery in Albuquerque, which sold his posters, lithographs, and publications. His great success as a businessperson provided him with the means to help others. In 2003 he gave his extensive library of over 1,200 books and a large collection of his art to Diné College to fulfill its guiding principle, sa'ah naaghíí bik'eh hózhóón, and to help preserve Diné culture, language, and history. The College of Ganado and Northern Arizona University presented him with honorary doctorates of humane letters.
Gorman passed away on November 3, 2005, at age seventy-four. In remembering him, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. called him the "Picasso of the Southwest" and "a child of the Navajo . . . He afforded us the opportunity to talk about ourselves to the world. When they talked about him, they talked about us" (Navajo Nation, 2005, 1).
Nancy J. Parezo
"Obituary: R. C. Gorman; Renowned Navajo Artist's Works Coveted by Celebrity Collectors." 2005. New York Times, November 13.; Brody, J. J. 1971. Indian Painters and White Patrons. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Gorman, R. C. 1992. The Radiance of My People. Houston: Santa Fe Arts Gallery.; Gorman, R. C., and Virginia Dooley. 1981. Nudes and Food: R. C. Gorman Goes Gourmet. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press.; Gorman, R. C., and Virginia Dooley. 1994. R.C. Gorman's Nudes & Foods in Good Taste. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers; Monthan, Doris. 1990. R. C. Gorman—A Retrospective. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press.; Navajo Nation. 2005. "Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. Orders Flags Flown Half-staff to Honor, Remember the Late R. C. Gorman." Press release, November 6.; Parks, Stephen. 1983. R. C. Gorman, A Portrait. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.