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Navajo painter R.C. Gorman dies in New Mexico

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R.C. Gorman

R.C. Gorman

R.C. Gorman, an internationally prominent Navajo artist whose portraits of voluptuous women in flowing traditional dress embodied the American Southwest for collectors around the world, died on Thursday at a hospital in Albuquerque. A longtime resident of Taos, N.M., he was believed to be in his mid-70s.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico announced the death. The cause was pneumonia following a blood infection for which Gorman had been hospitalized since September.

Gorman was best known for his paintings, sculptures and lithographs depicting American Indian women — typically corpulent, barefoot and wrapped in shawls or blankets. From the mid-1970s, his work graced the walls of galleries and corporate offices around the country and was disseminated even more widely on posters, note cards and calendars.

While some critics dismissed Gorman as a commercial artist who prized quantity over quality, others praised his flowing line; his warm, saturated colors; and the strength, spirituality and universality of his subjects. In 1973, his work was featured in the exhibition "Masterworks From the Museum of the American Indian" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gorman's work was popular with celebrity collectors, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, Gregory Peck, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Erma Bombeck. It was also acquired by Richardson, Barry Goldwater, Walter Mondale and Andy Warhol, who painted Gorman several times.

Born into modest circumstances on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, Gorman lived his later years in self-styled bohemian splendor. His sartorial taste ran to headbands and custom-tailored Hawaiian shirts; his personal art collection, it was widely reported, ran to Matisse, Monet and Chagall.

Rudolph Carl Gorman was born in Chinle, Ariz., most likely in the early 1930s, though he was publicly evasive about the date. His father, Carl, was a respected artist who was also famous for his work as a Navajo code talker in World War II.

The younger Gorman, called R.C., attended schools on the reservation and, after a stint in the Navy, traveled to Mexico to study art. There, he fell under the spell of artists like Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.

"Here were these great Mexican artists painting women grinding corn and working in the fields," he told The Austin American-Statesman in 1994. "I thought, 'This is just like my people.' Instead of trying to paint European, I started painting like a Mexican, I guess, except that I was using Navajos for my subject matter."

After moving to Taos in the 1960s, Gorman opened the Navajo Gallery. By the mid-1970s, he had refined the subject matter that would make him world famous.

"I don't draw the 'ideal' woman . . . ," he told the Austin newspaper. "Most women aren't like that. I draw beautiful women who are sometimes fat and have calluses on their feet."

Gorman is survived by a brother, Don Mitchell, of Chinle; and four sisters: Donna Scott of Chinle; Shirley Beecher of Black Mountain, Ariz.; Zonnie Gorman of Gallup, N.M.; and Carla Anderson of Kaibeto, Ariz., The Associated Press reported.