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Louis Bunce

Louis Bunce (1907-1983) was a legendary Northwest artist and educator.   Bunce is a sort of lynchpin in the Rock Creek Art Collection: he was a teacher at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (formerly the Museum Art School) and mentor to many of the artists whose work is at Rock Creek:  George Johanson, Lucinda Parker, Jack Portland, Eunice Parsons, Manuel Izquierdo, Bill Hoppe, Jack McLarty and others.  Bunce worked in many different styles and deeply assimilated most of the major art movements of the 20th Century from American Regionalism (he painted murals for the WPA) to Cubism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting (he was close friends with many abstract expressionists and served as an important conduit between Portland and the New York School).

Artistically he was a “man of a thousand faces” capable of making almost any kind of painting in any style with complete conviction. This uniquely broad skill set (which may have occasionally confused collectors) allowed Bunce to connect with students on virtually any terms – and also to continually reinvent himself.  Yet no matter how seemingly contradictory in style, an elegant sense of design and flattened space permeates everything Bunce made.

You may know Bunce for the large Cubist mural which hangs at Portland International Airport right across from Powell’s Books. This work was so controversial when it was unveiled in 1957  Bunce received threats and, on one occasion, a dead opossum on his doorstep.  The Oregonian was deluged with hate mail against the mural and published each letter with relish for months on end. How such an elegant work of Cubism could have been so controversial is perhaps hard to understand today – perhaps Oregonians thought Cubism sounded a lot like Communism – in any case people wanted a picture of an airplane and instead Bunce gave them the feeling of a lift-off.

Bunce was born in Lander, Wyoming and studied at the Portland Museum Art School (1925-26) and at the Art Student’s League of New York (1927-31).  He painted WPA murals in post offices in Oregon (St. John’s, Grant’s Pass, Eugene and Salem) as well as in New York.  William Givler, a classmate who became a dean, hired Bunce to teach at the museum school in 1946 where he remained until 1972.

Some facts about Louis Bunce: He  introduced Jackson Pollock to Lee Krasner, serving as matchmaker to one of the most troubled marriages in American Art.  Bunce founded Portland’s first art gallery (Kharouba). Bunce introduced silkscreen printmaking to Oregon. Bunce showed regularly at the Whitney annuals, the Metropolitan and the Smithsonian. His works are in the collections of Portland Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Reed College, Henry Art Gallery (University of Washington), Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (University of Oregon) , Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Art Institute, and many other public and private collections.

Bunce once wrote: “My visual world is the west – the largess and dramatic variety of the Oregon country from the greybound, hushed harmonies of the Pacific coast to the upheavals of black and white in the high plateaus. I seek an order which will reveal the inner life, the substance and the pulse of space and light, which nature… parades before my eye and mind.”