The Work of R.C. Gorman, the Picasso of American Indian Art

An intimate gallery exhibition at the American Indian Museum features 28 early works of an artist the NY Times has called, “The Picasso of American Art.”

Feedloader (Clickability)

Tucked away in a small, intimate second floor gallery at the American Indian Museum is an exhibition of the early works of Navajo artist R.C. Gorman. The show features 28 drawings and lithographs by an artist that the New York Times has called, "The Picasso of American Indian Art."

Best known for his prints of monumental, Madonna-like Navajo women, R.C. Gorman (1931–2005) grew up in the southwest, and took inspiration from the works of Mexican social realists, like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. The show includes a variety of subject matter subsequently abandoned when Gorman became more commercially successful in the late 1970s and 1980s. A series of nude academic drawings accompanies early examples of lithographic prints, featuring both figures and rare graphic Navajo designs.

Last Friday the show's curator, Kathleen Ash-Milby met me in the gallery to share some insight on the life and career of the internationally celebrated artist.

Gorman, she says, was "really struck by the boldness of approach to the figure, specifically monumental figures and this uninhibited approach to the nude. He was really inspired by that and wanted to bring that to the Native subject."

There is a bold experimentation to many of the pieces on display, which differ greatly from much of Gorman's subsequent pieces. "A lot of the works that you see here," says Ash-Milby, "are not people would typically think of as Gorman’s work."

"His earlier work is so vibrant and energetic. . . it’s lyrical in a way that you kind of lose ."

"His subject matter," she adds, "became much more narrow. He really switched over almost exclusively to printmaking and later you miss the nuance that you see in his early work, in terms of shading and detail. . .  You really see his hand in the work a lot more clearly."

"He’s really experimenting more," explains Ash-Milby. "He hasn’t really focused his body of work on any particular subject. I think a lot of that was related to his commercial success with the pictures of native women. He liked the idea of this heroic Navajo mother. You see a lot of the Madonna type figures. Actually one of the earliest prints he did, which is here in the exhibition, is of a mother and child."

Gorman's admiration of women can be traced back to his Navajo culture. Ash-Milby explains that the Navajo are a matriarchal society. "The leadership is from the women and it's matrilineal," she says, "which means that you trace your relationship through your clan based on who your mother was. So everything was really about the woman. Not just as life giver and supporter of the family. But also how the culture was passed on and how people related to one another. So I think there was that resonance for him—depicting native women and making them the subject of his work."

When asked about her favorite artwork in the collection, Ash-Milby points to the charcoal drawing Navajo Woman Drying her Hair (detail pictured above). The drawing, she says, is very sensuous. "He’s got that same approach to the nude that you see in a lot of Degas." Ash-Milby likens this piece to Degas' series of bathing women, who pose unaware of the viewer and are comfortable in their natural state.

"In a lot of ways it is this depiction of women, this affection he has . He doesn’t glamorize native women, they’re very real. They feel very solid and I think that a lot of people can relate to that."

Many people are familiar with the artist's imagery, says Ash-Milby; but of the museum's collection of the artist's earlier work, "It's really a treat."

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.