DARK­NESS & LIGHT

THE PAINT­INGS OF CADY WELLS

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS -

Adecade passed be­tween the time of painter Cady Wells’ (19041954) 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 Fri­day, March 24, 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 re­li­gious­themed 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 (18711958), 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.

de­tails

Cady Wells: Ru­mi­na­tions

Opens Satur­day, March 25; free pub­lic re­cep­tion 5:30 p.m. Fri­day, April 7; ex­hibit through Sept. 17 Talk by Lois Rud­nick: “Dark­ness and Light in the Land of En­chant­ment: The Art and Friend­ship of Cady Wells and Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe”; 1 p.m. Fri­day, April 28 (free with mu­seum ad­mis­sion; $5 for lec­ture only) New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072 En­trance to ex­hibit by mu­seum ad­mis­sion

Left, Un­ti­tled, 1938, wa­ter­color on pa­per laid on paste­board; above, Head of Santo, circa 1939, oil and wa­ter­color on pa­per

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