Imagine an artist: Chinese American, lesbian, and a Californian, her work overlooked in the mostly male and East Coast–dominated field of abstract expressionism. And now imagine that this artist had been orphaned as a little girl and shuttled back and forth between 17 white foster homes, an orphanage, and occasionally her grandma, before earning a scholarship to what is now California College of the Arts.
“Bernice Bing, in so many ways, she represents a miracle,” says Abby Chen, a contemporary art curator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. “Orphaned at such a young age and with [such] undeniable talent that she was able to get into California College of the Arts. It’s so rare to find an Asian in a prestigious art school [at that time].”
Chen has put together Into View: Bernice Bing, on display at the Asian Art Museum through May 1, 2023. This lively exhibition is the first in a series that features the work of underrecognized modern and contemporary artists.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
“I think for Bernice, who some knew as Bingo, her story was obscured,” says artist Lenore Chinn, a friend of Bing’s who considered her a mentor. “And women in general, I think, in that time frame were passed over in favor of the spotlighting of male artists.”
Into View seeks to correct this. The show, which contains 20 paintings and drawings, aims to trace Bing’s journey from the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and ’60s to her blending of Zen calligraphy and abstraction in the 1980s and ’90s.
AN ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM OF HER OWN
Bing was born in 1936 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a community still affected at the time by the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese people from immigrating and prevented those of Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens. Through drawing, she could escape and try to make sense of the difficult circumstances of her life.
At California College of the Arts, she studied with abstract painter Saburo Hasegawa, who introduced her to Zen calligraphy and Buddhist philosophy, and with Richard Diebenkorn, an abstract expressionist who became a leader in Bay Area figurative painting. Bing transferred to what’s now known as the San Francisco Art Institute, where she completed her undergraduate degree and studied with other expressionists, including Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff. She received a master’s degree in fine art from SFAI in 1961 and became one of the few women in the Beat scene in San Francisco.
Into View includes some of Bing’s early pieces that combine elements from abstract expressionism and the Bay Area figurative movement, like A Lady and a Road Map (1962); ink drawings that have never been exhibited before; and work produced while she was employed as a caretaker at Napa’s Mayacamas Vineyards in 1963 that features landscape imagery and focuses on the beauty of nature. In a rare artist statement from 1990, she writes, “For me, all nature is pure, and purely abstracted; the spiritual union links both the seen and the unseen forms of nature. Freedom, for example, is seeing trees as pure energy, light, and mass made up of linear particles.” The show also presents artworks exploring her Asian heritage and Buddhism, including one that references a revered Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra. Bing died in 1998 from cancer, and her last major work, Epilogue (1990–95), a triptych of abstract and figurative forms, also hangs in the show.
Bing’s bold colors and dynamic strokes belong to abstract expressionism, but her study of calligraphy and Zen Buddhism, encouraged by her mentor Hasegawa, also shows up in her work, says Mark Dean Johnson, previously an associate dean at SFAI, a former professor of art at San Francisco State University, and the author of Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970. He relates a conversation that he had with Bing about Hasegawa’s influence: “She [told me], ‘You can imagine this Asian woman, who’s basically looking for their place in the art world, to have someone talking to them about Asian philosophy, Asian art history, and suggesting that it was an opportunity for her to define or to help guide her artistic search.’ ”
In 1984, Bing traveled to what is now the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, to study with Wang Dongling, whom Johnson calls one of the world’s preeminent abstract calligraphers. The sojourn led Bing to incorporate calligraphic markings into her paintings, in a unique and personal way.
“She had a distinctly Bingo voice that was both Western and Eastern because she had a number of Asian American influences, not just Hasegawa, who I think introduced to her the concept of calligraphy as abstract gesture,” says Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, the board president of SOMArts Cultural Center, a Bay Area arts organization. “Her experience as a Chinese American and growing up in Chinatown and being part of that community also has a part in storytelling in her practice.”
Johnson and Lagaso Goldberg recently cocurated a show on Filipino American artist Carlos Villa, Bing’s contemporary and fellow SFAI alum, at the Asian Art Museum (on view through October 24, 2022). Lagaso Goldberg recounts going through Villa’s archives and being delighted to discover the many exhibitions he and Bing had together, notably a 1960 show, Gangbang, at the Batman Gallery in San Francisco, that also included Joan Brown and Manuel Neri.
Lagaso Goldberg, like Villa and Bing, went to SFAI, and she says she has a soft spot for the artists who came out of the school. “I have a real bias for painters who are real painters’ painters and who really know how to make a canvas sing through abstract brushstrokes that are really super brushy or minimal,” Lagaso Goldberg says. “When I look at Bingo’s work, it’s very legible to me that she’s part of a history of painting in the Bay Area and particularly SFAI.”
A BROADER VIEW
As a prelude to the Into View exhibit, two summers ago the Asian Art Museum screened the short documentary The Worlds of Bernice Bing, which explores the artist’s activism and her prominent contributions to Bay Area arts organizations. “Bing championed the disenfranchised and underserved,” says Jen Banta Yoshida, a coproducer of the film, via email. “Bing made sure that arts programs and funding were accessible to artists in the community.”
Bing served as the executive director of SOMArts, worked for the Neighborhood Arts Program in Chinatown, was a founding member of the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), and cofounded SCRAP, which provides discarded supplies to schools and community arts programs.
Chinn, Bing’s friend and fellow artist, also recalls Bing’s commitment to others. After returning from China, Bing moved to the Mendocino County town of Philo but remained a vital figure in the Bay Area. “She would drive out all the way from Philo, which is up north several hours away, and attend our [AAWAA] meetings or show up for our various events,” Chinn says. “And when we put shows together, she was there, helping out and lending her hand, so to speak.”
Chinn says that it means a lot to see her friend’s work at major institutions like the Asian Art Museum. And Into View is just the beginning of what curator Chen, with assistance from curatorial fellow Naz Cuguoğlu, has planned. Cuguoğlu has been a researcher at San Francisco museums and has curated exhibitions in San Francisco, Baltimore, and her hometown of Istanbul.
“I’m specially focusing on women artists, queer artists, other underrepresented artists, and immigrant artists,” Cuguoğlu says. “And my role is to think about what kind of collecting approach or exhibition approach we can develop.”
Buoyed by the Bing show, Cuguoğlu is combing the collection, looking for the foundations of upcoming exhibitions. “She’s coming in with a fresh eye and an understanding of what Bernice Bing has done, and using that as sort of a northern star to look into what we have,” Chen says.
When it comes to programming, Chen sees clear value in bringing in new ideas and perspectives from outside the museum. Inviting Johnson and Lagaso Goldberg to curate the Villa show, for instance. Or hiring Padma Maitland, an architecture professor at California Polytechnic State University and a former curator of Asian art at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, who worked with Chen on a 2021 exhibition of short videos, After Hope: Videos of Resistance, at the museum.
Cuguoğlu nominated videos for that project and organized a reading group for it with artists and researchers from the Asian diaspora. She calls this a good way to support one another and come up with alternative institutional structures to “break the hierarchies of learning and knowledge.”
Bing’s work, Cuguoğlu explains, gives her a fresh lens with which to view the collection. “She’s this Chinese American lesbian artist involved in the San Francisco Bay Area community and arts, but so generous and building all these allyships and collaboration,” she says. “I’m thinking, How can she give us inspiration?”
A NEW CANON
Johnson remembers that when he started working at SFAI in 1989, he had a conversation with Villa and some others about how U.S. art history books were almost exclusively devoted to white men—with maybe Georgia O’Keeffe thrown in. The discussion led to a conference three years later on ways to make art history more inclusive. Thirty years later, Johnson finds the Asian Art Museum’s expansion of its mission deeply satisfying.
“Carlos and Bernice were friends and classmates, and the fact that their exhibitions are overlapping for a few weeks is evidence again of this recent commitment of the museum,” Johnson says. “It’s evidence of Abby’s vision to highlight local artists, to make it clear that San Francisco’s own backyard is ground zero.”
“It is vital to acknowledge how economic, racist, and heteronormative structures contributed to the historical erasure of her work,” filmmaker Yoshida says of Bing. “During the years around abstract expressionism, especially, romantic partnerships determined a woman’s success and visibility as an artist. Bernice Bing, as a lesbian and a woman of color, did not have access to the same privileges as her counterparts, Joan Brown [married to Manuel Neri] and Jay DeFeo [married to Wally Hedrick].”
With Into View, Chen has set out to help Bing and others claim their rightful place in the art world. “I think with both the Bernice Bing exhibition and the research that comes with it, what Naz is doing, I think we are reinforcing that this is indeed the canon,” Chen says. “Ideally that through all of these different practices, we can find new models and new practices that innovate the institution.”
And in doing so, the Asian Art Museum and its upcoming shows honor the work—and the spirit—of Bing. “It’s long overdue to celebrate and sing praises and show our respect and to really shine a light on these San Francisco Asian American creative giants,” Lagaso Goldberg says. “That’s it. To me, that’s the headline. We’re long overdue.”•