A decade passed between the time of painter Cady Wells’ (1904-1954) first encounter with the Southwest in 1922 and his return. On his initial visit, he was headed to Arizona, where he attended the Evans Ranch School, a preparatory academy for boys. In an effort to make the young Wells, who was of an effeminate disposition, more of a man, his father had sent him west from his home in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Wells’ second trip to Northern New Mexico was in 1932, when he came on a visit and ended up staying, having found a place that allowed him freedom to come to terms with his sexual identity. “The communities in Taos and Santa Fe were just a little bit more open than the experience he would have gotten back in Massachusetts,” Christian Waguespack, curator of 20th-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art, told Pasatiempo. The wall text in the exhibition Cady Wells: Ruminations, which opens at the museum on Saturday, March 25, reads, “As a struggling young gay man, he found a greater sense of freedom in Santa Fe’s liberal, avant-garde art colony than he’d previously known.”
The exhibition of more than two dozen works, divided into sections showing the progression and stylistic evolution of his landscape paintings, was curated from the New Mexico Museum of Art’s collection by Catherine Whitney, chief curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, where it was recently on exhibit. “He worked primarily in watercolor,” Waguespack said. “When he was younger, he traveled through Asia and got really interested in Chinese calligraphy and Japanese brushwork. He went back to study in Japan for three months, and that’s what got him started as an artist. I think watercolor was the closest Western tradition to that, and it’s the medium he stuck with most of his life.”
Wells was born into privilege. His family owned the American Optical Company in Southbridge and founded Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum. But according to author Lois Rudnick, Wells was a troubled youth who dropped out of five boarding schools before being sent to Arizona (“Under the Skin of New Mexico: The Art of Cady Wells,” El Palacio, Winter 2013). He had a passion for music and art and was inspired by the Southwestern landscape. In the years before his first visit and his permanent relocation to New Mexico, he traveled in Asia. He spent time in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan in 1931, according to Waguespack. En route from California after his first visit to Japan, he stopped in Santa Fe at the invitation of Elizabeth Boyd White, known professionally as E Boyd, who would later become the first curator of the Spanish Colonial Arts Department at the Museum of International Folk Art. “She invited him to stay with her for a year, and of course, he just stayed,” Waguespack said. In Santa Fe, he began studying under Cubist painter Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979). In 1935, Wells returned briefly to Japan to study brushwork techniques. “I see his early work as kind of a synthesis of that Dasburg Cubist aesthetic with that Japanese brushwork,” Waguespack said, pointing out that influence in an untitled painting, from 1938, of a single cloud over a mountainous landscape. “If you look at this line that forms the clouds, it’s very deliberate, very loose, very similar to what you’d find in Japanese and Chinese calligraphy.”
The Cubist influence is evident in the linear, angular geometry of his landscapes. He was enamored enough with capturing his vision of the natural terrain in paint that he believed being an artist was his true calling. According to Rudnick, after just four months as a painter, he wrote to Alfred Stieglitz, hoping to get an exhibit with him in New York, explaining that until he discovered a compulsion to paint, most of his life had been about justifying his existence to his family. Among the avant-garde of Santa Fe, too, his homosexuality was less of an issue, though it may still have impeded his progress professionally. His chosen medium — watercolor — also doesn’t typically garner as much profit as oil paintings among collectors.
Another major theme is the influence Spanish colonial arts had on his painting. In the early 1930s, he began collecting santos, learning from E Boyd’s example. “He was one of the first serious collectors. He’s responsible for collecting an enormous portion of what’s in the folk art museum now,” Waguespack said. “The blood reds, dark browns, and acid greens of his religiously themed works, and the outsized organic shapes that dominate his landscape paintings from this period, stand apart from any of the work done by his New Mexico modernist contemporaries,” Rudnick writes. It is possible that, while idiosyncratic and possibly even visionary, his religious-themed works, too, help account for his general obscurity. Religious art was not a big draw for modernist collectors.
Wells felt an affinity with the brotherhood of penitentes because, as Rudnick writes, “Their view of the human condition was tragic, and because they physically embodied suffering and redemption in activities that were at once morality plays, musical performances, and affirmations of the human community.” She adds that the idea of penance might also have attracted Wells to the penitentes because he felt he could never do enough for his family, who may not have understood him but who supported him financially.
In 1941, Wells enlisted in the U.S. Army and saw action in Europe, spending months of the war stationed in Germany. Rudnick writes that he was engaged in making aerial topographical maps that influenced his painting style after the war. But the human suffering left marks as well. “He suffered from what we would understand now as PTSD,” Waguespack said. “He couldn’t paint and wrote about his frustrations and fears and anxiety and depression.” He also grew increasingly concerned about his proximity to Los Alamos National Laboratories and the nuclear experiments going on there. He lived in Taos with artist Rebecca Salsbury James (1891-1968) in order to be farther away from the labs, and he also bought a home in the Virgin Islands. But his fears about atomic radiation were also changing the direction of his work, and his later paintings attained a primal energy expressed in bleak, moody, apocalyptic colors. “He actually described them as nuclear landscapes,” Waguespack said.
Travels in France in the 1950s led him to admire the stained-glass windows of French cathedrals. He also encountered the religious paintings of Fauvist artist Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and his own work took another dark turn, while also taking on a luminosity — vibrant, glowing colors are outlined heavily, like stained glass, in black. Wells died of a heart attack in Santa Fe in 1954. His legacy lives on in the state’s historic museum collections, and his donation of his own collection of santos to the state in 1951 was done with the provision that E Boyd be the collection’s first curator. Ruminations is a serious look at the impact of place and experience on artistic temperament. With this show, Wells is rescued from obscurity, illuminated as more than a mere footnote. ◀