Roger Hull, a leading art historian and advocate of 20th and 21st century Pacific Northwest artists who also played a key role in the creation of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, died Thursday evening, Oct. 5, 2023, in Salem. He was 79 years old, and had been dealing with cancer for the past decade, according to John Olbrantz, director of the Salem art museum, which is part of Willamette University.
“I’m heartbroken, as are my staff and colleagues at Willamette who have known, admired, and loved Roger over the years,” Olbrantz said in a Facebook post. “As a beloved professor of art history for four decades, Roger introduced thousands of students to the history of art through his lively lectures on American and European art.”
Hull taught at Willamette from 1970, immediately after earning his Ph.D., through his retirement in 2010. Even after retiring from teaching he continued to write with historical depth and storytelling gusto about the lives and work of significant Oregon artists.
And he was one of the first and strongest advocates of creating an art museum at Willamette, as Olbrantz pointed out on the museum’s website: “When the university’s president, Jerry Hudson, asked for proposals from faculty for new initiatives in the early 1990s, Roger suggested the idea of a museum of art on campus and was the driving force behind its creation in 1998. And, in his capacity as a faculty curator at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art for the past twenty-four years, Roger has helped document the art and artists of Oregon through the numerous exhibitions he has organized and through the twelve books and six scholarly brochures he has written.”
Hull took an active role at the new museum, serving as its senior faculty curator and creating a series of valuable exhibitions by major Oregon artists, often also writing extended essays for the exhibits’ accompanying catalogs. The museum, which has become among other things a significant center for art of the Pacific Northwest, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the exhibition The Hallie Ford Museum of Art at 25: Highlights from the Permanent Collection, continuing through Dec. 16.
While he taught broadly about art history, lecturing on Renaissance, American, and Modern art, Hull is perhaps best-known outside the classroom for his vivid and penetrating writings about notable Oregon artists. He wrote perceptively and eloquently about, among others, Louis Bunce, Constance Givler, Amanda Snyder, Barbara McClarty, Jan Zach, Charles Heaney, Harry Widman, Nelson Sandgren, Manuel Izquierdo, George Johanson, Jack McLarty, Clifford Gleason, Henk Pander, and Myra Wiggins — a veritable all-star team of 20th and early 21st century Oregon artists.
Hull’s writing was always flavorful and human, never dull or dry. About the Dutch-born painter Pander, who died in April of this year, he wrote: “From the moment he first set foot in Oregon, Pander has startled, shocked, outraged, and yet astonished and pleased his viewers. His work has been deemed too bold and controversial (‘pornographic,’ some have said), too traditional and academic, too calculatedly aimed at the marketplace, too independent, too art-historical, too varied and wide-ranging and thus lacking in focus, too un-modern, too ‘weird.’ … His work is contradictory, complex, vital, often abrasive, often gorgeous. He is a remarkable Northwest master whose art provides a synthesis of New World and Old World experience in sometimes beautiful and sometimes toxic ways.”
Hull also served for many years as an editor and writer for the Oregon Historical Society’s online Oregon Encyclopedia, writing many entries about artists and museums. He won the Oregon Governor’s Art Award in 1999, and was named Oregon Professor of the Year in 1993 by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.
Roger Hull was born in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1943, and raised in Wallace, Idaho. He earned a B.A. in English from Whitman College in 1966, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern University in 1967 and 1970, then moved to Salem to begin his teaching career at Willamette. He was married for 54 years to the artist Bonnie Hull.
“He was a true gentleman and a scholar, as well as being a loving husband, father, and grandfather,” Olbrantz wrote. “On a personal level, I will miss his warmth, his kindness, his intelligence, his wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, his unconditional support, and his unwavering friendship.”
“Roger was the essence of knowing all that is visual art and we learned from him how to deeply love what we see,” Bonnie Schulte, who worked for several years at the Hallie Ford, commented. “He said that art pieces grouped together in an exhibition were having their own personal conversation.”