In 1958, when a committee from the Port of Portland asked Louis Bunce to paint a mural in the new Portland International Airport, they should have expected something abstract.
In many ways, Bunce lived in two worlds: Portland and New York City. He grew up in Portland and honed his craft in New York. When he returned to Portland, he came back with the force of New York’s international modern art movement.
As explained in a retrospective in the Oregonian, the two cities ended up influencing him in different ways:
If the New York art world was alluring because of its size, connections and market energy, the local art world was magical because it was like an intimate gathering of friends.
Galleries were few and collectors were practically nonexistent. But everyone knew each other. Parties and camaraderie abounded. Liquor flowed. So did gossip and friendship.
You had to be idiosyncratic to thrive in such splendid isolation. But Bunce … pursued excellence as if [he was] part of the New York art world. The payoff wasn’t glory, major shows or money.
In the late 50s, Bunce was teaching at Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art). He and his wife had already opened the city’s first avant-garde gallery. And he was creating nature-inspired abstract expressionist pieces. They were being showcased as part of major shows in New York. This is when he was asked to produce a mural for the airport.
Bunce described the reaction when a few Port of Portland board members saw his initial sketch for the mural, without context. “Two or three [of the board members] came in and they looked at it and they said, ‘What the hell is that?’ It sort of shocked them because it was a new experience for them. They hadn’t seen anything like that.” The Port of Portland voted against commissioning work from Bunce. The rejected artwork was leaked to the press and sparked outrage across the state.
Should the new Portland international airport be graced with an abstract mural? Bunce was receiving threatening calls. People threw garbage on his lawn. It got to the point where he felt unsafe, and eventually got a police guard to go out with him in public.
But after an outpouring of support from local artists, he was given the green light to proceed with his work through the Metropolitan Arts Commission. In the same interview with the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, he described his intention behind the colorful mural:
Rachel Rosenfield: I’ve seen it, of course, and I know that, at least at the time, reading all the newspaper clippings and your description of it, it was to deal with the sense of being up in the air, the sense of play.
Louis Bunce: The movement, the sense of play.
RL: And you weren’t necessarily interested in depicting anything particularly representational?
LB” Although there’s lots of representational elements in it — lots of them. There’s the kind of jet force, the airplane forces or movements of what would be the earth, and all kinds of turning and shifting and changing, and air. Lots of kinds of air, the feeling of air. So it’s realistic in that sense.
RL: But more in providing a general sense of what it’s like to be flying rather than specifically showing an airplane and…
LB: Well, that would be corny to show a specific type of airplane.
RL: Although, isn’t that what some people…?
LB: That’s what they would have liked to have had, yes. Something that they’re familiar with, you see.
You can find Bunce’s mural hanging above Coffee People in the pre-security level at the Portland Airport.
At the Portland International Airport many of the art pieces are accompanied by a pre-recorded messages about the work. If you call 503.460.4764, you can hear a brief introduction about Bunce before artist Lucinda Parker recalls the controversy.
Watch the Oregon Experience documentary, “Art Makers”, featuring Louis Bunce