Louis Bunce: Catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art

A retrospective of Louis Bunce's at the Hallie Ford Museum makes the case for the artist as the catalyst for modern art in Portland

There is a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Louis Bunce at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, running through March 26. It is an important show. It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.

The importance of Louis Bunce to the development of art in Portland (and Oregon) cannot be overstated. As Hull says in his introduction: “Arguably Louis Bunce was the major Oregon modern artist of the twentieth century—a claim that can be substantiated on the basis of his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes, his friendship with artists on the New York scene that provided links between the Big Apple and the Rose City, his imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art as well as roses, and the sheer force of his amiable, extroverted personality.”

Gerald Robinson, “Portrait of Louis Bunce,” 1955, gelatin silver print//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The exhibition certainly demonstrates “his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes.” Born in Wyoming in 1907, Bunce graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland. He attended the School of the Portland Art Association (later called the Museum Art School and later the Pacific Northwest College of Art), and spent four years in his early 20s in New York attending classes at the Art Students League. Early on he was enthralled with the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and the early landscapes in the exhibition have hints of Cézanne.

He then seems to have been inspired by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico in the 1930s, with works like Along the Waterfront, 1939-1940. Here is a view from the seawall along the Willamette, looking north. Two figures lean on the wall, gazing across the river, but the rest is a simplified still life of objects: timbers, post, wheel, bridge and the towers of the Portland Public Market Building (later the Oregon Journal Building, demolished in 1969 for the construction of Waterfront Park). It has the bleakness of de Chirico, but maybe that’s also the bleakness of the Great Depression.

Louis Bunce, “Along the Waterfront”, 1939-1940. Oil on canvas. 34” x 30 ½” /Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

By the 1950s Bunce, in the spirit of the times, was making abstract expressionist style paintings. For me these are his most powerful works. Bunce combines freedom of form making with explorations of paint application—typical abstract expressionist attributes—with the feeling (not really “depiction”) of the land and sea of Oregon. Burned Land No. 2 relates directly to the series of massive wildfires known as the Tillamook Burn. Other titles such as Bay Composition No.2, Beach—Low Tide, Soft Rocks, Cliffside, or Lava Field, make it clear that Bunce was looking locally for (oh, I hate using this word, but…) “inspiration.”

Landscape-inspired-abstraction continued to be Bunce’s motif of choice through the end of his life, with a few side tracks into “pop”-inspired, paintings of enormous apples and roses, and a series of collages and serigraphs with strange furniture-like motifs (unfortunately not in this exhibition, but in a show of Bunce paper works that just closed at Hallie Ford).

Louis Bunce, “Burned Land 2″, 1951, oil on canvas, 45” x 22 7/8″/Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

This exhibition demonstrates what was “Louis Bunce” in Louis Bunce. For the most part it is the connection to the local. His de Chirico-esque works of the ‘30s seem to be ways of viewing real places, not the dreams of surrealism. Whatever subject the titles of the paintings may suggest, in the abstract expressionistic works Bunce was clearly getting pleasure from making his forms and investigating many ways of applying paint, rarely relying simply on free flying brushwork (the terrific Big Green, 1960, is an exception). The mature paintings reward close looking. Along with the virtuoso paint is the virtuoso line, sometimes dancing in the forefront, other times acting as just a hint to edge a form.

One of Bunce’s late works, Blue Landscape, 1978, utilizes little brushes of paint to creep up to, and define, the linear incidents in the painting, which, in turn hint at landscape, flattened like vision at night—line, subtle brushwork, land: Bunce-ness.

Louis Bunce died in 1983, and I wouldn’t be surprised if few local artists under 50 know much about him. That’s why it is important to have a beautiful big book about him, and it isn’t just a beautiful book, it is a great read. I am an avid reader of biography and in Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism, Roger Hull does what good biographic writers do: he immerses the reader in the times and the places that the subject occupies. Growing up as an artist in 1970s Portland, I never had much knowledge of the history of “our” place, the Portland art scene. This book on Bunce is a MAJOR step in building a foundation for the art history of Portland, Oregon from 1940 to 1980.

Louis Bunce, “Blue Landscape”, 1978. Oil on canvas. 69” x 84”/Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

We learn about Bunce’s “friendship with artists on the New York scene that provided links between the Big Apple and the Rose City.” He was clearly a friend of “Jack” Pollock. An anecdote suggests that Bunce encouraged Lee Krasner to make her first visit to meet Jackson Pollock.

Reflecting “his imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art as well as roses” we learn that he founded the first real contemporary art gallery in Portland. The Kharouba Gallery lasted from 1949 to 1955. Bunce said, “And we showed some good work there, I must say. We showed a lot of local work, I went back East. I got some work from the East; we showed people from the Seattle area; people from California. We had some very good shows, and it was successful except for sales; sales were minimal.”

Louis Bunce, “Beach—Low Tide No. 2, 1954. Oil on canvas. 52 x 42 3/16”/Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

In the preface to the book Jordan Schnitzer recalls, “Louis Bunce and Michele Russo…convinced my mother, Arlene, to open the Fountain Gallery of Art…in 1961.” Bunce, his wife Gloria and Sally Judd (now Lawrence) founded the Sally Judd Gallery in Portland in 1967. When I got out of school (1971) the Fountain and the Sally Judd Gallery were the key serious galleries in Portland. Until I read this book I had no idea that Bunce was an important player behind both of them.

There is a mural by Bunce at Portland International Airport. It sits quietly on a wall above Coffee People. You’d have no idea how controversial it was in 1958. In four pages documenting the mural, Bunce says, “they broke my windows and threw garbage in my yard and all kinds of nasty things. I had to get a police guard to protect me. I was afraid to go out.” Abstract art was still confusing to many, and confusion led to fear and political feelings—maybe it was Communistic?

His “imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art” is exemplified by a short film you can find on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJMyOQ0zaBI), The Jazz Arts, made in 1961. This film was made as a pilot for what could have been a series on KGW that would have celebrated contemporary art forms, but it probably never aired. Watch the video, about a half-hour long, to get the flavor of a scene 55 years ago. You’ll get the feeling that Bunce is sincerely believing in the power of art as he paints on a big canvas as the musicians and he improvise together.

Louis Bunce, “Apple”, 1968. Oil on canvas. 41” x 48”//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The Hallie Ford Museum has become the major institution delving into the history of the art of Oregon. See the exhibition to understand Louis Bunce as an artist. Look closely to see him thinking his way through making a painting, and from painting to painting see his career as a painter evolve. Book illustrations can’t do that, but read the book to understand where Portland art used to be, and how an individual was a catalyst. Maybe we wouldn’t have First Thursday today if we didn’t have Louis Bunce half a century ago.

You could visit the show and also take in one of these events:

“Remembering Louis Bunce”
[Find out about “the sheer force of his amiable, extroverted personality.”]
Roger Hull, moderator; George
Johanson, Arlene Schnitzer, Lucinda
Parker, Jack Portland, panelists
Sunday, February 26, 2017, at 2 p.m.
Paulus Lecture Hall, Willamette University College of Law
Free and open to the public

Sunday Gallery Talk
“Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism”
Roger Hull
Sunday, March 26, 2017, 2 p.m.
Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery,
Hallie Ford Museum of Art
Free and open to the public

There is also a show coming up at Russo-Lee Gallery in Portland: “Louis Bunce Tracing a Legacy,” from February 2-25.

I did a 1977 interview with Louis Bunce for Willamette Week,
“The one-man avant-garde.”

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