R.C. Gorman remembered

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R.C. Gorman spent the last of his days painting and signing autographs for his many friends. Photo by Kevin Turek

Writer David Wallace remembers his friend, the famed Navajo painter R.C. Gorman.

By David Wallace / Special to The Malibu Times

Most of his friends knew him as simply “R.C.” Among them were Andy Warhol, who painted him, Jacqueline Kennedy, who once frosted cupcakes with his beloved cook, Rose Roybal, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who humorously autographed a photograph of himself with the overweight artist: “…with R.C.’s body and my artistic talents, we could conquer the world.”

The world knew him as R. C. Gorman, the world-famous Navajo artist hailed by The New York Times as “the Picasso of American Indian Art,” who died Nov. 3.

For the past two decades, I was also privileged to be included as a friend.

As things turned out, I was also one of his last houseguests, as well as being present when he painted his last works and for his last show at his Taos, NM Navajo Gallery. Who knows why things worked out that way? Serendipity? I will always be grateful.

In early August, worried about R.C.’s health (he was operated on for a subdural hematoma a year ago, and recovery was slow), as well as the need to research a long-planned book about Taos, I decided to visit the village for a week. Although I was distressed to see him using a using a cane and an electric scooter to get around, he seemed to be coping well, signing hundreds of posters at his hugely successful annual gallery show. We got along famously, trading Hollywood gossip and memories prompted in part by his reading of my book, “Hollywoodland.”

“Please stay another week,” he asked.

So I did, happily ensconced in the huge guesthouse adjoining his adobe-style home and studio atop a hill a couple miles north of the town.

The occasion for The New York Times accolade was a 1973 exhibition of Native American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; R.C., whose art was used for the show’s catalog cover images, was the only contemporary artist included in the show. Today, his art, frequently focused on the female form and using a blanket or shawl to suggest rather than define the figure, has become iconic- sales of his posters, ceramics, paintings and drawings made him rich.

Some have called him brash, flamboyant, even crazy. They were, in part, also correct. He was a bigger-than-life human being, in whom an overabundance of talent was matched by an overabundance of generosity (he once gave a drawing-now selling well into five figures-to a mutual friend, knowing well that his friend would sell it to live on). Two years ago, R.C. established a scholarship program and gave his huge library to the Diné College in Arizona, the first and largest tribal-controlled college. The gift was in memory of his mother, the late Adele Katherine Brown, and father, the late Carl R.C., an artist and teacher who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service as one of the famous Navajo “code-talkers” during World War II.

R.C. spent money wisely; investing in a world class art collection housed in his home. He adored food, celebrated in several “Nudes and Foods” cookbooks, which paired recipes from friends around the world with drawings (occasionally of a contributor).

Being a guest in his home more or less automatically meant you took lunch and dinner with him-always his treat (he loved referring to the astronomically expensive restaurant at Taos’ El Monte Sagrado resort as his “roadside diner”). Lunch companions included whoever was at the house that day- workmen doing some remodeling, various friends, which often times included the enchanting Virginia Dooley, for 32 years his confidante and director of his gallery.

“I love osso buco in Italy,” he once said, “raw ham in Spain, and calamari in Greece … but my favorite is still the blood sausage my Aunt Mary makes on the reservation.”

It was on that reservation at Chinle, Ariz. that Rudolph Carl Gorman was born July 26, 1931, and it was there where he made his first drawings when he was three years old in the dirt floor of the family Hogan (a sacred Diné home used in traditional ceremonies). While attending school at Chinle’s one-room schoolhouse, R.C.’s talent was first spotted; he drew a “naked” lady, and was promptly spanked by both his teacher and his mother. He then attended a Presbyterian mission high school where a teacher gave the teenage sheepherder his first art lessons, starting him on the way to becoming a professional artist. R.C. joined the Navy in 1951, after which he attended the University of Northern Arizona and received the first scholarship ever given by the Navajo Tribal Council for study outside the United States (at the University of Mexico). Before moving to Taos in 1968, he lived in San Francisco, studying art and earning his livelihood as a model.

In his last years he was plagued by severe diabetes and associated complaints. A month or so ago, everything caught up with him when he contracted a virulent blood infection that proved fatal.

Now, R.C., with his ready smile and trademark headbands-he had hundreds-is gone, buried in a cedar casket made by his friend Roger Romero, facing the sun beside an apple tree in an ancient cemetery on his Taos property.

But, of course, his art, and the memory of his generosity, will live on.

At the open casket rosary the day before his funeral, a guest placed a square of Ghirardelli chocolate in his folded hands, a loving tribute to both his passion for food and his trickster sense of humor.

R.C. would have loved the gesture.

David Wallace, a frequent contributor to The Malibu Times for a decade, is the author of the national bestseller “Lost Hollywood,” its successor “Hollywoodland,” and the soon-to-be-published “Dream Palaces of Hollywood’s Golden Age” (Harry Abrams) and “Exiles in Paradise” (Amadeus Press). He also wrote the history of Malibu for Abrams’ recently published “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea.”