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N.M.’s Dark Side

SANTA FE, N.M. — Taos modernist dug in deep with the landscape’s violent and volcanic origins



The Taos modernist who got under the skin of New Mexico, Cady Wells rejected its clear light and sweeping views for its geologic and atomic underbelly.

While colleagues like Georgia O’Keeffe reveled in undulating hills and color-splashed mesas, Wells dug in deep, mining the pathos of the penitentes with the landscape’s violent, volcanic origins.

Opening at Taos’ Harwood Museum of Art Saturday, “Under the Skin of New Mexico: The Art of Cady Wells 1933-1953” showcases 29 paintings by this largely overlooked artist who worked in both Santa Fe and Taos during the ’30s and ’40s. The show marks of the first Wells retrospective since 1967.

Born into a patrician New England family, Wells struggled to fit into a conservative, Republican Baptist brood — scions of the American Optic Company and founders of the Old Sturbridge Village living history museum.

According to his younger brother Mason, Cady was the family rebel — the only Wells who did as he pleased. He boasted of being expelled from five boarding schools. In another break from family tradition, he dropped out of Harvard after a single semester. Slight and slender and possessed of a high-pitched voice, Wells was the prevailing stereotype for early 20th century effeminacy.

“He doesn’t do anything the family wants,” said Lois Rudnick, guest curator and author of “Cady Wells and Southwestern Modernism.” “He wants to paint, he wants to play classical music.” A professor emerita with the University of Massachusetts, Rudnick lives in Santa Fe.

Well-aware of his son’s homosexuality, Wells’ father Channing sent him to the Evans Ranch School in Arizona to toughen him up. While hating the school, Wells fell in love with the Southwest, penning lush descriptions of the landscape to his friends back home.

“The mountains and mesas made him feel alive,” Rudnick said.

By 1931, he passed through New Mexico and Arizona on his way back from an Asian trip where he studied Japanese prints. He met the painter E. Boyd Van Cleve, who invited him to spend the following year on her ranch. It was Boyd who guided him in collecting Spanish Colonial art, building one of the finest collections of santos in northern New Mexico. In the summer of 1932 he sought out Andrew Dasburg as a teacher. Dasburg rejected him at first, telling him to return when he was serious. Cady returned to Harvard, where he studied art, then returned to New Mexico to work with Dasburg, one of the most influential modernist painters in the area.

“It’s the only formal art lessons he ever gets,” Rudnick said. Dasburg “told whatever students he had to find his own voice and not imitate what he did. He learned a lot about modernism. ”

From the start, Wells was drawn to the spontaneity of watercolor.

“He loves the fact that it’s both spontaneous — it forces you to know what you’re doing because you can’t make one mistake,” Rudnick said.

His first show opened at the Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) with Agnes Pelton and Raymond Jonson.

His early watercolors are light, brimming with the joy of his newfound commitment to life as a painter. Dasburg clearly cast a hugely influential shadow, as did the great watercolorist John Marin. The brush strokes emphasize the physicality of the calligraphic line, allowing him to emphasize patterns of light creating movement and drama. The short, sharp lines mimic both classical music notation and Asian calligraphy.

“He’s using it almost like musical notation,” Rudnick said. “He was a classical and jazz musician. He’s interested in the bones of the landscape; he’s living in the Pojoaque Valley.”

As early as 1934, he began moving away from a singular interest in the use of expressive line to modeling with firmer brushwork accentuating the contours of the land. In “Taos Pueblo North” (1935), he demonstrated that fascination with the built environment. “Otowi Mountain” (1936) reflects the Japanese influence with a sense of delicacy.

The end of Wells’ affair with the writer Myron Brinig. another satellite in the orbit of Taos’ Mabel Dodge Luhan, drove his increasing fascination with the penitente lay Catholic brotherhood, as well as his interest in collecting santos, both of which influenced his paintings. He identified with the penitentes’ essentially tragic view of the human condition. He was moved by their emphasis on penance, which he could never seem to do enough of — he was born into a body in which he never felt entirely at home and into a family that allowed him to live off its wealth.

When Wells returned from World War II with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, he could hear the explosions of Los Alamos testing blasting from his Pojoaque Valley home. The windows shook, the dirt between his vigas sifted from the ceiling. He produced writhing, volcanic landscapes reflecting both the violence of its formation and its potential destruction.

“He has a very dark soul — partly due to his struggle with his homosexuality,” Rudnick said. “He’s extremely sensitive to the pain of mankind. Cady never feels quite deserving of the money from his family.”

“Otowi-Spring” (1938) and the spectral “Tree Trunk (Bleak Tree)” (ca.1938) replace sinuous flora with dark, almost Surrealist forms. The landscape is stark, stripped of all vegetation.

Wells volunteered for the Army in 1941 at 36 to pay his debt for the privilege of living in New Mexico, working with aerial topographical maps and camouflage. Although he did not fight, he experienced the devastation of battles in Germany and France, including have to watch starving German children whom he was not allowed to feed. He was particularly devastated by what he believed to be the needless slaughter of thousands of young Americans because of inept military policies.

“Every day he came back his house shook with explosions from nuclear devices from Los Alamos,” Rudnick said. “He thinks New Mexico is Ground Zero for the next war.”

In “Paleozoic Era” (1946), he created an explosive visual analogue to geographer J. B. Jackson’s statement that New Mexico looked like the world after time had come to an end. Frail arms try to embrace a shattered cross in a land imagined in the dark after-flash of an atomic bomb. “Black Barranca” (1946) contorts his favorite landmark into a blackened opaque burnish and slashing angularity as if his house were suddenly buried under “a hundred feet of ashes,” as he told E. Boyd.

“He’s the only artist I know who took on Los Alamos and the atomic bomb and what they were doing here,” Rudnick said.

He often fled to his Taos studio or to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.

Wells died suddenly of a heart attack in 1953, 10 days before his 50th birthday. Although he was once touted alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Adolph Gottlieb, today he is little-known outside New Mexico.

“His work was unique and he would not put himself in any category,” Rudnick said. “He doesn’t fit with the ‘Land of Enchantment.’ He’s a watercolorist — watercolor has always been a devalued medium. He died so young.”