In less than two decades, Navajo artist R.C. Gorman has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the hottest names in what might be called boutique art. His images of slightly chunky Native American-appearing women adorn the walls of homes, office buildings and a scattering of museums all over the country. Working in a variety of media, Gorman has amassed enormous commercial and public success while being largely dismissed by most critics as someone who is in art for about the same reasons that Denny's is in food.

When Gorman arrived here about 12 years ago, he was a bold artist whose work was varied and held great artistic promise, said Patrick Houlihan, curator of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and Marilyn Butler, the owner of galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Santa Fe, N.M.

Then, Butler said, something changed in Gorman. He discovered the economic advantages of mass-produced prints -- each of them can net far more than a single original -- and, said Butler, "there didn't seem to be much discrimination about it. He developed a formula of the Navajo-looking woman, and there hasn't been anything new since then."

What Gorman apparently started thinking about was how to sell the formula -- as widely as possible. He flies to six to 10 shows a year across the country, flaunting a jet-set life style. He cultivates an image of outrageousness.

But behind it, there is a cold and calculating sanity. The shows sell out frequently, and Gorman returns to Taos with the check in his pocket. Alan Edison, owner of the Great American Gallery in Chicago, put the gross for the most recent Gorman show there at $45,000.

If a visitor had expected something from the public-relations files on Gorman -- perhaps an animated, gregarious, outrageous and even insane artiste -- Gorman in person was a total contradiction. He was cordial and attentive, yet conscious enough of media relations that he casually pulled a prepared kit of clippings from a file drawer.

"I'm mellowing out," he said. "I just had a very terrible operation and for the longest time, I couldn't wear clothes and I was confined to caftans. They didn't know it was that bad and they thought it would be a two-hour operation, but it took six.

"This mellows one down. I thought I would just go on forever, but I am reminded this is not possible."

He has friendships with people like Andy Warhol, and he loves to tell a story about encountering Salvador Dali in an elevator in the St. Regis hotel in New York. The car was crowded, but Gorman and two people traveling with him managed to squeeze inside. He recognized Dali but did not speak to him. Finally, though, one of Gorman's companions took the initiative, saying, "Dali, this is R.C. Gorman." Dali looked up, Gorman recalled with great satisfaction, and replied, "Yes, I know."

The man whom an art magazine would eventually call "Navajo in vogue" and a "press agent's dream" was born Rudolph Carl Gorman on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz., son of Carl Gorman -- himself a prominent artist.

It is not exactly clear when R.C. Gorman was born. He will only say that his listed birth date in 1932 is "a reasonable time, give or take 10 years." Official biographies put his age at 53; there is rampant speculation that he is at least five years older.

He was educated in reservation boarding schools -- standard practice for Indian children. After high school, there was a stint in the Navy and then Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he majored in literature with a minor in art. Eventually, overwhelmingly impressed by the work of Orozco, he talked the tribal government into financing his art studies in Mexico, where he studied with Jose Sanchez, a master printer who has worked with Orozco, Siqueiros and Tamayo.

"I was raised on the reservation, and we didn't have very much," Gorman recalled. "The only thing I had to go on were books on artists, and I went through the whole gamut. My favorites were artists like Rembrandt and Michelangelo and van Gogh. Up to Picasso.

"What really changed a lot of my ways of expressing myself was when I went to Mexico and saw those very bold impressions from the Mexican artists like Siqueiros and Tamayo. I still love Tamayo and Orozco."

Returning from Mexico, Gorman settled in San Francisco, supporting himself as a male model while experimenting with his art. Fame came slowly, if steadily. Eventually, he visited Taos as a tourist, liked it here and settled permanently.

Throughout the country, Gorman's paintings, lithographs, seriographs, paper casts, pottery, cast bronze sculptures, etched-glass room dividers and even T-shirts have become as ubiquitous as Muzak. The images have been called suspiciously reminiscent of Zuniga, but Gorman contends he never heard of Zuniga until after his own style was established.

"I admire him very much," Gorman said of Zuniga. "Actually, when you come right down to it, the only thing we have in common is large women. And I've slimmed mine down. But now, the more I look at it, we do have different attitudes and certainly different models. But if they are going to compare me to anyone, Zuniga is just as good as any."

Gorman and his associates are reluctant to talk in precise terms about the economics of his various enterprises. However, a picture does emerge from interviews with gallery owners in three cities and a review of the current prices for Gorman's work at a variety of galleries, as well as the volume of goods produced by the artist. Rough calculations indicate his personal net income is at least $1.2 million a year. The gross is far larger -- perhaps more than $10 million -- but Gorman employs 11 people, including his housekeeper, gallery help and others. He says he has three lawyers working almost full time on his affairs.

His work is affordably priced for the middle class (the lithographs and seriographs, anyway), yet costly enough to create the impression of a significant investment.

Contracts with the three printing houses that reproduce Gorman's work limit his new lithographs to 15 a year. Between 150 and 200 copies are made of each print. Retail prices for the prints today range from about $800 to $2,000 -- with most about $1,500.

He produces a mix of limited-edition prints and original paintings -- the sculptures and other works are a sideline -- but a single lithograph can net him as much as $50,000, says Marian Frank, operator of the Enthios Gallery in Santa Fe and his authorized dealer there. Lithographs and seriographs are more widely distributed and sellers are chosen by the printing houses.

Gorman's sympathizers believe that lack of recognition may be as much because he is an Indian as anything else. They say no Indian artist has ever achieved widespread acceptance in the art community. Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe gallery owner who has known Gorman for many years but doesn't handle his work, agreed that being an Indian is a hindrance. Fenn said the problem is that Native American artists are not allowed to shed their ethnic identities and be considered on their merits just as artists. But even with Gorman being identified as more an art factory than a true artist, Fenn believes Gorman still meets several criteria necessary to be seen in history as a significant artist -- though probably not in his lifetime. R.C. Gorman's Formula Navaho Artist Gains Fame, Not Acclaim By Allan Parachini Los Angeles Times TAOS, N.M.

In less than two decades, Navajo artist R.C. Gorman has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the hottest names in what might be called boutique art. His images of slightly chunky Native American-appearing women adorn the walls of homes, office buildings and a scattering of museums all over the country. Working in a variety of media, Gorman has amassed enormous commercial and public success while being largely dismissed by most critics as someone who is in art for about the same reasons that Denny's is in food.

When Gorman arrived here about 12 years ago, he was a bold artist whose work was varied and held great artistic promise, said Patrick Houlihan, curator of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and Marilyn Butler, the owner of galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Santa Fe, N.M.

Then, Butler said, something changed in Gorman. He discovered the economic advantages of mass-produced prints -- each of them can net far more than a single original -- and, said Butler, "there didn't seem to be much discrimination about it. He developed a formula of the Navajo-looking woman, and there hasn't been anything new since then."

What Gorman apparently started thinking about was how to sell the formula -- as widely as possible. He flies to six to 10 shows a year across the country, flaunting a jet-set life style. He cultivates an image of outrageousness.

But behind it, there is a cold and calculating sanity. The shows sell out frequently, and Gorman returns to Taos with the check in his pocket. Alan Edison, owner of the Great American Gallery in Chicago, put the gross for the most recent Gorman show there at $45,000.

If a visitor had expected something from the public-relations files on Gorman -- perhaps an animated, gregarious, outrageous and even insane artiste -- Gorman in person was a total contradiction. He was cordial and attentive, yet conscious enough of media relations that he casually pulled a prepared kit of clippings from a file drawer.

"I'm mellowing out," he said. "I just had a very terrible operation and for the longest time, I couldn't wear clothes and I was confined to caftans. They didn't know it was that bad and they thought it would be a two-hour operation, but it took six.

"This mellows one down. I thought I would just go on forever, but I am reminded this is not possible."

He has friendships with people like Andy Warhol, and he loves to tell a story about encountering Salvador Dali in an elevator in the St. Regis hotel in New York. The car was crowded, but Gorman and two people traveling with him managed to squeeze inside. He recognized Dali but did not speak to him. Finally, though, one of Gorman's companions took the initiative, saying, "Dali, this is R.C. Gorman." Dali looked up, Gorman recalled with great satisfaction, and replied, "Yes, I know."

The man whom an art magazine would eventually call "Navajo in vogue" and a "press agent's dream" was born Rudolph Carl Gorman on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz., son of Carl Gorman -- himself a prominent artist.

It is not exactly clear when R.C. Gorman was born. He will only say that his listed birth date in 1932 is "a reasonable time, give or take 10 years." Official biographies put his age at 53; there is rampant speculation that he is at least five years older.

He was educated in reservation boarding schools -- standard practice for Indian children. After high school, there was a stint in the Navy and then Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he majored in literature with a minor in art. Eventually, overwhelmingly impressed by the work of Orozco, he talked the tribal government into financing his art studies in Mexico, where he studied with Jose Sanchez, a master printer who has worked with Orozco, Siqueiros and Tamayo.

"I was raised on the reservation, and we didn't have very much," Gorman recalled. "The only thing I had to go on were books on artists, and I went through the whole gamut. My favorites were artists like Rembrandt and Michelangelo and van Gogh. Up to Picasso.

"What really changed a lot of my ways of expressing myself was when I went to Mexico and saw those very bold impressions from the Mexican artists like Siqueiros and Tamayo. I still love Tamayo and Orozco."

Returning from Mexico, Gorman settled in San Francisco, supporting himself as a male model while experimenting with his art. Fame came slowly, if steadily. Eventually, he visited Taos as a tourist, liked it here and settled permanently.

Throughout the country, Gorman's paintings, lithographs, seriographs, paper casts, pottery, cast bronze sculptures, etched-glass room dividers and even T-shirts have become as ubiquitous as Muzak. The images have been called suspiciously reminiscent of Zuniga, but Gorman contends he never heard of Zuniga until after his own style was established.

"I admire him very much," Gorman said of Zuniga. "Actually, when you come right down to it, the only thing we have in common is large women. And I've slimmed mine down. But now, the more I look at it, we do have different attitudes and certainly different models. But if they are going to compare me to anyone, Zuniga is just as good as any."

Gorman and his associates are reluctant to talk in precise terms about the economics of his various enterprises. However, a picture does emerge from interviews with gallery owners in three cities and a review of the current prices for Gorman's work at a variety of galleries, as well as the volume of goods produced by the artist. Rough calculations indicate his personal net income is at least $1.2 million a year. The gross is far larger -- perhaps more than $10 million -- but Gorman employs 11 people, including his housekeeper, gallery help and others. He says he has three lawyers working almost full time on his affairs.

His work is affordably priced for the middle class (the lithographs and seriographs, anyway), yet costly enough to create the impression of a significant investment.

Contracts with the three printing houses that reproduce Gorman's work limit his new lithographs to 15 a year. Between 150 and 200 copies are made of each print. Retail prices for the prints today range from about $800 to $2,000 -- with most about $1,500.

He produces a mix of limited-edition prints and original paintings -- the sculptures and other works are a sideline -- but a single lithograph can net him as much as $50,000, says Marian Frank, operator of the Enthios Gallery in Santa Fe and his authorized dealer there. Lithographs and seriographs are more widely distributed and sellers are chosen by the printing houses.

Gorman's sympathizers believe that lack of recognition may be as much because he is an Indian as anything else. They say no Indian artist has ever achieved widespread acceptance in the art community. Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe gallery owner who has known Gorman for many years but doesn't handle his work, agreed that being an Indian is a hindrance. Fenn said the problem is that Native American artists are not allowed to shed their ethnic identities and be considered on their merits just as artists. But even with Gorman being identified as more an art factory than a true artist, Fenn believes Gorman still meets several criteria necessary to be seen in history as a significant artist -- though probably not in his lifetime.