Overlooked Abstract Expressionist Bernice Bing Searched for Identity through Painting

Sumayra Jabbar
Nov 21, 2019 7:20PM

Portrait of Bernice Bing. Courtesy of the artist's estate.

Bernice Bing, Burney Falls , 1980. Courtesy of Sangsook Lee.

Bernice Bing, or “Bingo,” was, in many ways, an artist’s artist. She was a well-respected figure in the San Francisco arts community during the 1950s and ’60s, but her Abstract Expressionist paintings have largely been left out of the movement’s subsequent history. It is, of course, unsurprising that the works of a Chinese-American and lesbian artist would fall through the cracks of art history—and in her painting Blue Light (1961), she grappled with this very issue. The red ideogram meaning “humanity” in Chinese and the heart symbolism show Bing’s attempt to find a place in American society through abstract, spiritual imagery. “Both symbols—humanity and heart—reflect Bing,” Flo Wong, an artist and close friend of Bing’s, once said.

The exhibition“Bingo: The Life and Art of Bernice Bing,” on view at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art until January 5, 2020, details Bing’s well-respected place in the arts community during her active years. The curator, Linda Keaton, writes in the exhibition catalogue that Bing’s life detailed “early heartbreak, trying obstacles, and ultimately the triumph of a modern woman.”

Bernice Bing, Velasquez Family, 1961. Courtesy of Crocker Art Museum.


Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1936, Bing’s early life was filled with tragedy. Orphaned at an early age—her father died in prison and her mother of heart failure—she and her sister occasionally lived with their traditional and strict grandmother, but spent most of their childhood in foster homes with Caucasian families, as well as in the abusive Ming Quong orphanage. It was this early feeling of alienation in America that led Bing on a lifelong search for community and the true essence of selfhood.

Bing was a rebellious child who struggled academically but excelled at art, earning herself a full scholarship to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1957. This short stint proved transformative. She was instructed by abstract painter Saburo Hasegawa, who first introduced her to Zen calligraphy, as well as Taoism and Buddhist philosophy. The ability “to see without seeing” ignited in Bing a lifelong devotion to spirituality. In 1958, she decided to study painting rather than art and advertising. She transferred to the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where she graduated with an MFA and met the figurative painter Joan Brown, the sculptor Manuel Neri, and the founding fathers of funk art, Robert Hudson and William T. Wiley.

Bernice Bing, Anderson Valley, 1994. Courtesy of Jeanne Carlson and David Carlson.

Surrounded by the lively Beat movement and the avant-garde scene, it appeared that Bing was on the brink of a burgeoning career. The Old Spaghetti Factory below her North Beach studio was a known hub for Beat artists, and she frequented their parties, too: She was fondly known at Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick’s gatherings as a “hard-drinking dancer” and a “fiery presence.” Her first solo exhibition took place in 1961 at the Batman Gallery, a short-lived but popular Beat gallery. It featured a series of paintings she created during her master’s program that were based on Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez. In 1963, James Monte of Artforum credited Bing for creating art that represents “a remarkable amount of inventive freedom within the confines of Bay Area realism.”

Bing’s notebooks from 1963–67 show an artist becoming increasingly possessed by spiritual thought. On one page, she wrote: “Why must I keep seeking answers?” She became a caretaker at the Mayacamas Vineyards in 1963, and her solitary residence sparked a series of Mayacamas paintings focused on “the overpowering spirituality” within nature, as she stated in a rare interview.

Bernice Bing, Mayacamas No. 6, March 12 1963, 1963. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Bing was fascinated by the duality of light and dark, and these landscape paintings have a considerably lighter palette and tone than her later explorations of the unconscious world. A series called “Dark Angel” (1959)—of which only drawings have survived—display her search for “transcendence from the terrifying to the light,” as she said in her lecture “The Spirituality of Darkness.”

The visionary painting Big Sur (1967), with its rich color palette of blue and red, symbolizes an artist plunging back into the dark abyss. Bing herself described the work as “breaking through the rock to the core of the inner self” where the “demonic unconsciousness” resides. She painted it during her residency at Esalen, a seminal New Age center where she studied with psychologist Abraham Maslow, philosopher Alan Watts, and one of her greatest influences, psychiatrist Fritz Perls, among others. During this period, Bing began to explore, as Keaton has written, “a darker palette suggestive of psychological terrains that seem to nod to her Surrealist precursors.”

Bernice Bing, Vital Energy, 1986. Courtesy of Marcel Vinh and Dan Hansman.

This oscillation is the work of an artist tirelessly grappling with her identity—what art historian Susan Landauer has described as being “on the brink of solidifying or dissolving.” Although Bing eventually joined the Asia American Women Artists Association in 1989, which finally surrounded her with the Asian community, her final years were also deeply introspective. She traveled around China, Japan, and Korea for three months in the mid-1980s, but any sense of belonging that she may have been looking for was destroyed. “I was a stranger,” she once reflected about her time in China.

Her later “Quantum” (1991–93) and “Cosmic Gap” (1990–92) series journey back into the conception of her spirituality: Zen calligraphy. In Abstract Calligraphy (1987), Bing drew influence from one of her mentors, Wang Dongling, who taught her at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1984. In the work, she embodied his merging of Western and Eastern aesthetics to create “a new synthesis with a very old world,” as she wrote in an artist statement in 1990. Her works Raging Wind (1986), Vital Energy (1986), and Lotus Root (1990) all show an artist moving towards reconciling her relationship with the West and East, succeeding through an insatiable desire for balance. “I have made a path to my heart with Chinese calligraphy,” Bing continued. In Chinese calligraphy, she found the light.

Sumayra Jabbar