Roger Hull

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).


Three more Oregon Arts Commissioners resign

The Oregon Arts Commission still deals with repercussions from the firing of its executive director

Michele Russo, "Bathers," 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Michele Russo, “Bathers,” 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Late last week I heard that three more commissioners had resigned from the Oregon Arts Commission—Jean Boyer Cowling of Medford, Maurizio Valerio of Union and Roger Hull of Salem. This mass resignation might have pushed me into the journalistic equivalent of the Red Zone. Yet MORE trouble at the arts commission? But in interviews with OregonLive’s David Stabler and Barbara Curtin of the Statesman Journal, Hull, the only departing commissioner who was reachable, apparently, said he was leaving because of old business.

“I was uncomfortable with the circumstances surrounding the termination of Chris D’Arcy,” Hull told Curtin. “After thinking about it for a while, and watching the makeup of the arts commission evolve, I decided it was time for newer members to take the leadership of the discussions and that I would step aside.”

Stabler quoted from Cowling’s resignation letter to the governor:

“I strongly disagree that Ms. D’Arcy’s termination was warranted but I recognize that any evaluation of an executive director’s performance can be disputed. My concern is board governance. It appears that a few people, including the Oregon Arts Commission chair, were actively involved in this termination. Unfortunately, this action occurred without notice to or consultation with the commission.”

Christine D’Arcy was fired by Business Oregon’s Tim McCabe back in October after 19 years at the commission. In the state bureaucracy, the arts commission executive director reports to the head of the agency charged with economic development in the state. The board chairs of both the little arts agencies  D’Arcy supervised, Julie Vigeland of the arts commission and Bob Speltz of the Oregon Cultural Trust, signed off on the decision, but the final decision was McCabe’s: the arts commission does not hire or fire its executive director. Two arts commission commissioners resigned immediately, Henry Sayre and Royal Nebeker, and they were replaced (and another opening filled) by three new commissioners.

At the time I wrote two stories analyzing the situation. The first argued that the twisted bureaucratic circumstances of the executive director of the arts commission and cultural trust made the position essentially impossible: too many legislative and government bureaucracy masters on top of two separate citizen commissions. Only the fact that the arts were almost invisible and powerless in state government made the position survivable at all. But the commissions’ invisibility and relative powerlessness made the executive director a target for the arts community, which wanted more aggressive policy formulation and representation in Salem than was possible. A more aggressive executive director would have found herself in the cross-hairs of various administrations and legislatures over the years. (In the second, I argued for a much more visible, policy leadership position on the governor’s staff, a Secretary of the Arts, and a revised, more democratic, citizen involvement in policy development.)

That analysis, however, doesn’t explain personal friendships and loyalties on the commission. Or for that matter different policy ideas. If Vigeland and Speltz are hoping their commissions can have more impact in the future (and my conversations with Vigeland suggest they do), figuring out how that can happen and in what areas will be debatable. So, change in the commission was inevitable, I think, and inevitably painful. (I think D’Arcy’s contribution to the arts in the state is gigantic, and I always found her to be personable: My first reaction to the news last fall was surprise and sadness.)

Anyway, this would be an interesting time to be an Oregon arts commissioner, and if you feel the call, then you can apply online. The commission is also surveying the public to help figure out what qualities are most important in an executive director, and that survey is also online. I just filled it out myself.


The unrelated painting by the late Portland painter Michele Russo, above, comes from the Portland Art Museum’s digital collection.



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