Joseph McCullough, Painter, 1922 - 2012


In the history of the Cleveland Institute of Art, no name appears more often than Joseph McCullough’s. During his 33 years as head of the school, he led not only its expansion but also its transition to an accredited and internationally respected academic institution.

But the 1970 Cleveland Arts Prize recognized McCullough’s first love: painting. It was a subject he had studied growing up in his native Pittsburgh (where he was born in 1922) in Saturday classes at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. It was his major during his years at the then the Cleveland School of Art (1940–41 and 1946–48); and at Yale University, where he earned a B.F.A. (1950) and an M.F.A. (1951). He landed at Yale during a serendipitous moment when he could call Lewis E.York and Josef Albers his mentors.

In 1952, McCullough returned to Cleveland to serve as teacher and administrator at his alma mater. Within three years, he would be named its director. On his arrival, he taught classes in color and light, concurrently exploring those properties in his own work.

Much of McCullough’s artwork during the mid-1950s sprang from a sculpture he spotted on a country road south of Cleveland. Someone had fashioned a rugged metal contraption that suggested parts of a rural home, complete with dormer, weather vane, old shingles, windmill blades, tractor and a carousel. McCullough says he stood in the rain and sketched the work for five minutes.

His soggy sketches would direct the next five years of his creative activity, yielding hundreds more drawings, and dozens of paintings. His “Infernal Machine” series, done mostly in encaustic wax, tempera and India ink, juxtaposed elements of those sculptured fragments, set on all manner of painted backdrops. For McCullough, one could paint a subject only by exploring it from every conceivable vantage point.

A similar epiphany set off his next two thematic series. On a different drive, in southern Ohio, he spotted an “installation” of bottles hanging from fence posts and bells hanging from trees. McCullough crawled under the fence and began sketching again. For the next five to seven years, he painted what he called “literal abstracts,” featuring bottle forms. By now, he had added Duco enamel and acrylics to his palette.

He next painted a series of “Soundscapes,” lyrical paintings designed to resonate for the ear as well as the eye, a metaphysical experiment on canvas. That experiment was largely successful, although McCullough recalls at least one gallery visitor who grumbled, “I looked at it and didn’t hear a thing.”

McCullough’s paintings from the 1960s, inspired by the sounds and images of nature, were bold, expressive and stunning. Red Sound, an arresting work that vibrates with color, marks a transition to the next series, which he called “Reflections.” Cleveland art historian Elizabeth McClelland aptly titled her essay on his work “Ephemera Captured.”

McCullough notes that in the early years, he had to limit himself to paints that dried quickly. Because he was so busy with administrative duties, he did not have the luxury of waiting three days to see how oil would dry. Nor could he cease painting for any long period of time. “I had to stay right up with faculty and students," he says. “I believed I could say anything to them if I was able to stay with them, practicing what they do.”

Would-be seekers of McCullough’s work will have difficulty tracking it down. Most of his paintings disappeared into private collections as soon as they were exhibited, often before he could shoot a slide to document them.

Two major pieces from the “Infernal Machine” series hang in his personal collection and illustrate their vulnerability. One, dated 1954, is set on a gold-leaf grid applied over a ground of red, gray and ocher. Years ago, when the piece hung in his office, an overzealous cleaning lady rubbed the surface with cleaning fluid. Her contribution to the work was permanent.

Joe McCullough paintings have been more lovingly tended at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Dayton Art Institute and several university collections.

McCullough’s work leading up to the 1970 Cleveland Arts Prize was just the beginning of a long and distinguished career. In the next few decades, he would preside over the second major expansion of the Cleveland Institute of Art and become a national leader in the field of art education. He would also build his own body of work, transforming images from his world travels into brilliant watercolors and acrylics that continued to fly off gallery walls.

In 1988, the Arts Prize committee gave him a second award, a Special Citation for his distinguished service to the arts in Cleveland.

—Faye Sholiton

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •