Bernice Bing’s Search for a Unified Self

SAN FRANCISCO — For more than 20 years, I have been gathering information on the artist Bernice Bing (1936–1998), who, I have learned, had many identities. She was a painting student of Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and Frank Lobdell; a Bay Area Abstract Expressionist; a Beat Generation artist; a Chinatown arts activist and teacher, who taught a class with the Filipino American abstract artist Leo Valledor; an active member of the groups Lesbian Visual Artists and Asian American Women’s Artist Association; a practicing calligrapher who studied with Saburo Hasegawa in 1957 at the California College of Arts and Crafts and in 1984 with Wang Dongling at the Zhejiang Academy in Hangzhou, China; a devout Buddhist who lived alone in rural California; someone nicknamed “Bingo,” who the Cellar Bar in San Francisco’s Geary Theatre memorialized with a drink called the “Bingotini” — a martini made with 151-proof rum; an orphaned Chinese American who was shuttled between 17 white foster homes and the abusive Ming Quong orphanage. 

After missing the exhibition Bingo: The Life and Art of Bernice Bing at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (September 21, 2019–January 5, 2020), curated by Linda Keaton, I vowed not to miss her next museum exhibition. This is why, when I got off the plane in San Francisco to participate in the conference/symposium IMU UR2: Art, Aesthetics, and Asian America (October 28-29) at Stanford University, I was eager to see the exhibition Into View: Bernice Bing at the Asian Art Museum (September 30, 2022–May 1, 2023), curated by Abby Chen. The show celebrates the museum’s recent acquisition of 24 of Bing’s works dating from 1959 to 1995, making it the largest public holding of work by this long-overlooked artist. 

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The exhibition’s immediate takeaway was that the many paths Bing took in her work reflect her lifelong desire to find a unified self. To her credit, it seems that she never developed a signature style. The diversity of her artworks and subjects — from abstract landscapes to lotus sutras — shares something with another San Francisco-based artist, Ruth Asawa, who drew every day, worked in her community, and made figurative clay sculptures and abstract wire sculptures. The deep bond they share is their persistence. Bing was, as I wrote of Asawa, “a pioneer out of necessity.” Her search was not about style, being fashionable, or fitting in. It was about trying to acknowledge the multiple worlds one inhabits.

Bernice Bing, “Blue Mountain, No. 2” (1966), oil on canvas, 60 3/4 x 50 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches

Even though I had thought about Bing’s issues with identity before, I was not prepared for the effect the early painting “Self Portrait with a Mask” (1960) had on me. Every now and then a work speaks to you so deeply and personally that you are left shaken; it is as if what you are looking at sees you. 

The upper torso of a woman with a black ponytail is seen in profile, turned slightly toward the viewer. Bing depicts herself wearing what looks like a nondescript blue outfit; its color and cut reminded me of the “Shanghai blue” coats traditionally worn by peasants and factory workers. She wears a white mask with red lips. Its jaw juts forward, suggesting that the form does not comfortably fit her face. The largely featureless mask is reminiscent of those worn in Noh theater and their so-called “neutral” expression. In Noh, all the roles are played by men and the masks represent different characters.

Once all the things that Bing has brought together in this painting start to emerge, the depth and expanse of self-awareness that she possessed in her mid-20s becomes apparent, beginning with her depiction of a woman occupying what is traditionally a man’s position while wearing a female-signifying mask. This is underscored by the suppression of gender difference the blue uniform conveys. What does it mean that a Chinese American woman is wearing a mask meant to represent a Japanese woman? Does the mask/painting reveal or hide her true self? Can one ever arrive at a true self or are we always wearing one kind of mask or another?

Bernice Bing, “Epilogue” (1990-95), oil on canvas, 72 x 288 inches

After looking at “Self Portrait with a Mask,” I began to see the rest of the show through a different lens; each path Bing took with her work was in quest of a unity that she knew was impossible to attain. The poet Robert Kelly wrote, “Style is death. Finding the measure is finding/a freedom from that death, a way out, a movement/forward.” I believe Bing was always looking for what Kelly calls “the measure,” and that one aspect of the search was the part of her practice connected with Buddhism and calligraphy. In the four works on paper or board in the exhibition with “lotus” in the title, I had the sense that Bing, who had shown in the Bay Area in the 1960s, was not focused on commercial exhibits, and that conflict between private and public — which the self-portrait anticipates — haunted her throughout her life.

While in the Bay Area, I wanted to see paintings from two of Bing’s series of abstract landscapes, Mayacamas and Blue Mountains, as I was interested in how their internal syntax and color palette differentiated them from each other. I knew that “Mayacamas IV, 4/10/63, Bismark Saddle” (1963) and “Blue Mountain, No. 2 (1966)” were included in Into View. I had hoped to see “Mayacamas No. 6, March 12, 1963” (1963), which is in the collection of San Francisco’s de Young Museum but learned that it was not on display. (Maybe museums could learn to collaborate on a micro level.) I also knew that I would be able to see “Blue Mountain No. 4” (1966) at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. Seeing these paintings confirmed my suspicion that the former series was inspired by the time she spent in the Napa Valley and her familiarity with Diebenkorn’s Berkeley series from the mid-1950s, while the latter was likely her imaginative response to the Guilin Mountains in Southern China. While “Blue Mountain 2” and “Blue Mountain 4” show the inspiration of Clyfford Still’s California abstractions, the series stands on its own as well as anticipates Wayne Thiebaud’s late paintings of mountains. Ideally, I would like to see an exhibition of paintings from these two series along with late landscapes, such as “Anderson Valley” (1994) and others done in the 1990s. 

Painted while she was suffering from Lupus and other diseases, “Epilogue” (1990-95), which measures 72 by 288 inches, is, as the title suggests, a commentary on her life. Made up of three abutting panels, each panel includes abstract and figural elements and contrasting areas of light and dark; each one also defines three clearly demarcated areas. Together, they archive different paths Bing explored, from the figural to the calligraphic. Beyond that, I cannot say with any certainty what the painting means and I am not sure prolonged looking will shed light on the painting’s enigmatic juxtaposition of lotus forms and figurative outline. Mounted on adjacent walls, “Self Portrait with a Mask” and “Epilogue” suggest the trajectory of Bing’s career, from the recognition that the self (or “I”) might always remain both hidden and revealed to a retrospective looks at the routes one takes in pursuit of the self and authenticity. This exhibition makes an important contribution to our knowledge and reevaluation of Bing. Hopefully, this is just the beginning. 

Bernice Bing, “Lotus/Lotus Sutra” (1986), mixed media on rag paper, 30 x 22 inches

Into View: Bernice Bing continues at the Asian Art Museum (Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, California) through June 26, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Abby Chen.


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