“Into View: Bernice Bing,” the most significant retrospective of a woman painter from the Asian Art Museum’s collection to date, is nothing short of luminous.
The show includes 24 recent acquisitions to the museum’s permanent collection, as well as videos and reproductions of letters, journals, and personal photographs on loan from the artist and activist’s archive at Stanford. These artworks and documents paint an intimate — and long overdue — portrait of the seminal Bay Area lesbian painter and activist as a complex character who grappled with identity and spirituality both in her work and personal life.
Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1936, Bing — known as Bingo among friends — was integral to the San Francisco art world, though she would move in and out of the spotlight before her death in 1998. After losing both parents at a young age, she spent her youth between the Ming Quong orphanage for Chinese girls in Oakland, several white foster homes and sporadic stays with her grandmother. Her unstable childhood made it difficult for Bing to develop or maintain a strong sense of cultural identity, something she would struggle with throughout her lifetime.
Bing began her education in painting in 1957 at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where she had two formative experiences with faculty members. First, with reigning king of the Bay Area figurative movement Richard Diebenkorn, who heavily influenced her style, and second, with the Japanese painter and theorist Saburo Hasegawa, who introduced Bing to Zen Buddhism and calligraphy.
Though Bing’s paintings are largely abstract, many suggest forms in a manner inspired by the Bay Area figurative movement. “A Lady and a Road Map,” 1962, is a vibrant ensemble of shapes and colors, through which one might make out a mountain range and a female figure in repose. “Blue Mountain, No. 2,” 1966, similarly portrays its subject with more emotion than figurative accuracy, as though the landscape is filtered through the lens of how it made Bing feel. Nine ink drawings from Bing’s time as a graduate student, never exhibited prior to this show, are the closest she comes to direct figuration, and the loose brushwork, as well as the subjects of nature and female forms, anticipate her later work. The direct influence of Buddhism and calligraphy would surface in her work later, too, after Bing’s travels in China.
Bing returned to San Francisco from the East Bay in 1960, when she transferred to the California School of Fine Arts (later renamed the San Francisco Art Institute) in Russian Hill, not far from her neighborhood of birth. There, she studied with Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell and began her career in earnest as she became involved with the vibrant Beat scene centered in North Beach and The City’s arts community more broadly, her contemporaries at the time including Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo and Carlos Villa. That same year, she was one of four women to be included alongside 15 men in “Gangbang,” an ironically or unfortunately titled group show at the legendary Batman Gallery, cementing her place in the North Beach avant garde. The next year, she graced the gallery again — this time with a solo show.
Villa — a Filipino multimedia artist and activist and himself a major figure in Bay Area Asian American art history — considered Bing “one of the first to understand her role as a community-based person. Instead of going with galleries, she showed at non-profit venues as a primary venue. People thought it was a step down, but she made it part of what she did. It was very natural.”
Not only did Bing show her work at alternative spaces, but she also had a hand in founding a few of them in the 1970s: The South of Market Cultural Center (later renamed SOMArts), an exhibiting community space, and the Scroungers’ Center for Reusable Art Parts, a nonprofit creative reuse center for discarded art supplies, both of which continue to be vital to the local arts community. But it was her involvement with the Asian American Women Artists Association, of which she was a founding member in 1989, that she considered her own most significant commitment to her community.
“I don’t really consider myself a feminist,” she said. She did, however, express sympathy for the “feminist ideology,” but said she had “never been really active in a group situation. So this is actually a real commitment to the AAWAA because I feel that I’m really behind that.”
The brand of feminism Bing espouses here might be considered intersectional by today’s standards, the insinuation of her statement being that the feminism of the time was mostly white, just as the Beat scene was predominantly male.
“Those of us who are still part of (AAWAA) regard her as our mentor and role model,” said San Francisco painter and queer activist Lenore Chinn, who met Bing through mutual friends in The City’s art and lesbian communities. “She was one of the few Asian American woman artists who we could look to who had achieved a certain luminary status.”
The only explicitly figurative painting in the exhibition points to the complexities of identity Bing experienced. “Self Portrait with a Mask,” 1960, shows the artist’s face obscured by a pallid mask, inspired by Japanese Noh theater, obfuscating her identifiable features. On the subject of visiting China between 1984 and 1985, where she studied calligraphy and deepened her relationship to Zen Buddhism, Bing said, “It was interesting to be a majority,” but that she still felt like “a foreigner.”
Following her return from China, Bing relocated to Philo, in Mendocino County, where she began making work inspired by traditional Chinese calligraphy and Zen Buddhist sutras. The Lotus Sutra in particular, one of the most significant of the Mahayana Sutras, became a recurring theme in her work. The 1986 “Lotus/Lotus Sutra,” included in “Into View,” blends calligraphic brushwork with a signature Bing color palette, and displays a new phase of abstraction in her career.
Suffering from declining health, Bing was diagnosed with hemochromatosis and lupus in the early 1990s. Her last major work from that period, the hauntingly titled, “Epilogue,” 1990-1995, is also her largest at 6 by 24 feet. The three-panel opus is a roiling composition of color fields and expressive lines, the sheer immensity and energy of which evoke a final attempt to leave a major impression.
It’s hard to know what drove this impulse — a lifetime of being sidelined as a woman, the feeling of not quite belonging as a Chinese American, her declining health, a combination of these factors or something else entirely. In a note dated October 27, 1992, Bing writes, “I cannot change the world. The only thing I can change is me. And it may take a lifetime — not just this present life, but eons.”
It’s a wistful message, penned in the midst of her work on “Epilogue,” which conveys a simultaneous acceptance and resistance of life’s brevity. But Bing’s work defies a passage into obscurity, as “Into View” offers an opportunity to reconnect with the artist and reestablish her place in a necessarily expanded canon of Bay Area artists gone, but not forgotten.