Lions of PNCA: Louis Bunce

December 27, 2016

image via: Portland Art Museum

When we reflect on the past hundred or so years of visual arts in Portland and the region, it's easy to see the ways that teachers and students at what was founded as the Museum Art School as part of the Portland Art Museum (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) have shaped the landscape. Just in the day-to-day in Portland, you'll see more public art works by members of the PNCA community than you may have ever realized. The Northwest collection at the Museum is also full of works by members of our PNCA family. Institutions such as the Portland Center for the Visual Arts (PCVA) that paved the way for the arts institutions such as PICA that we rely on to bring contemporary art to Portland were co-founded by alumni Jay Backstrand and Lucinda Parker. Arts patron and important early gallerist Arlene Schnitzer attended the Museum Art School. The late Laura Russo (of Laura Russo Gallery) was a graduate.

No one was more influential than Louis Bunce, who was both a student and a longtime teacher at the Museum Art School (1946-1970). Because he had studied at the Art Students League in New York, and spent additional time in New York over the years, Bunce was connected with the major movements and artists of the day. He brought that perspective back to the Museum Art School where he was hired in 1946 as a faculty member, this right around the time the school grew with the influx of students on the GI Bill®. Meanwhile, with his wife Eda, he started the Kharouba Gallery, the first gallery in Portland devoted to contemporary experimental art by artists in Portland and others whose work he brought back to Portland in a suitcase. He laughs in his Smithsonian Oral History interview remembering that he sold not a single Mark Tobey from the show they mounted of his work. 

This January, the Hallie Ford Museum will mount an exhibition of work by BunceLouis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism opens January 21 and features 49 paintings drawn from collections all over the United States. As the curator notes, Bunce moved through Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Post-Modernism in his long career. The PNCA Library provided a number of images for the exhibition catalog.

Bunce was included in exhibitions including the Sao Paulo Biennial (1955), American Painting Today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1950), Whitney Museum of American Art annuals (1951, 1953, 1955, 1959), and Art of the Pacific Northwest organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts (1974). He showed his work at the Meltzer Gallery in New York in the 1950s, and beginning in the 1960s was long affiliated with the Fountain Gallery of Art in Portland.

He speaks of his time at the Museum Art School following the war. "Well suddenly, there was more community for me, because I knew the students very well and I was with them a lot, quite a bit really. And I considered them my friends, you know. We were all the same; we were all artists. There wasn't the student/master painter relation. I was closer to them than that. I went out with them, we went drinking together, we did all kinds of things together. But, we were engaged in art, yes. I was firm about you being there and working. I was quite firm about that. No matter if we went out at night, I said,"Now, you know, don't forget your school.You be there, God damn it! I mean it and you're going to work.You can carouse all night if you want to but you're going to work every day. That's the only way you're going to make it." 

From the PNCA archives, here is an interview with Louis Bunce that was recorded as part of the PCVA archives' Oral History Project.