ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You could call Frank McCulloch a Renaissance man.
A famed New Mexico painter armed with a galaxy of awards, he also plays the guitar and boasts degrees in both the sciences and art. At one point, he even taught biology and chemistry before following his creative trajectory.
McCulloch turned 90 on Aug. 24. As a result, Sumner & Dene Gallery is hosting a retrospective of his abstraction-meets-landscape paintings through Oct. 31.
It all started before he reached the first grade.
“My folks were very sensitive about it and they got me art instruction,” the Albuquerque artist said.
But when it came time to choose a career, he headed toward the sensible sciences.
“It was the practical ’50s,” he said.
McCulloch taught science at both the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Highlands University, but his joy in art still percolated. He earned an art degree at UNM and his master’s degree from both Highlands and the Instituto Allende in Mexico.
McCulloch continued his career teaching art to more than 9,000 students at both Highland High School and UNM. He retired from teaching in 1985 to become a full-time artist.
Known for his New Mexico landscapes, McCulloch took early detours into both portraiture and abstraction. Today, he drives across the state (although not as often as during his younger days), sketches and takes photos for references before heading back to the studio.
“Part of it is the love of New Mexico,” McCulloch said of his chosen subject. “There’s something about the horizon with me. If I had a 4-by-5 canvas and put a horizontal piece of masking tape on it, you’ve sort of got a landscape.”
He uses the tape to graph out placement of the vibrant bands of color so critical to his compositions.
McCulloch picked up the guitar when he was in his late 20s and still performs solo or with his friends.
“I’m interested in a lot of the older New Mexican folk music and Mexican and Spanish music,” he said.
He describes himself as a realist, though certainly not a photo-realist. His brushstrokes shimmer across the canvas in light layers.
“He has brought the sophistication and the intellect of abstraction to landscape,” Albuquerque Museum Director Andrew Connors said. “He uses his representationalism to inspire thought, which is what the best of abstraction does.”
“I’m not much for real fine detail,” McCulloch added. “Maybe it’s that little abstraction side that’s still in me.”
His painting “Autumn, Taos” reveals that commitment to line and space.
“It’s kind of along the main road going north out of Taos,” he said. “As you leave, you see Taos Mountain back there.”
He created about half the paintings in the show within the past year.
“Nube Escuro” shows thunderclouds churning across a mountainscape.
“Maybe it’s the Expressionist in me,” he said. “I’m not always ready to paint a nice, sunny day.”
He painted “Monte de San Antonio” near the border on the way to Alamosa, Colorado.
McCulloch’s notability extends well beyond his painting, Connors said.
“Equally important is his service as a mentor and inspiration to many generations of creators in New Mexico,” he said. “He is an all-around artist. Those of us in music tend to think of him as a tradition-bearer. First and foremost, he’s a supporter. He is an emotional supporter for all of us.”
McCulloch’s work hangs in the Albuquerque Convention Center and in the UNM School of Law courthouse. In 2008, the Albuquerque Museum staged a McCulloch retrospective. A recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award in the Arts, he was also named UNM Distinguished Alumni of the Year, an Albuquerque Art Business Association “Local Treasure” award and more. In 2019, Mayor Tim Keller honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.