San Francisco, June 9, 2022 — Into View: Bernice Bing celebrates the Asian Art Museum’s recent acquisition of 24 works that shine a light on an important local Chinese American artist whose vibrant abstract paintings have gained recognition in recent years for their palpable energy and deeply original vision. The exhibition, on view September 30, 2022 – May 1, 2023, invites audiences to discover Bernice “Bingo” Bing’s distinctive achievements during the second half of the 20th century, and admire her perseverance as an outsider—as a woman, an Asian American, and a lesbian—in an art world that offered her little support or lasting respect during her lifetime (1936-1998).
Into View: Bernice Bing is the first in an ongoing series of collection exhibitions championing the work of under-recognized modern and contemporary Asian American artists.
Into View surveys the evolution of Bing’s remarkable practice, from paintings of the 1950s and 1960s that straddle Abstract Expressionism and figuration to work from the 1980s and 1990s that explore a synthesis of Zen calligraphy and Western modernism. With these 24 artworks, the Asian Art Museum is now the largest repository of Bing’s art and will be the exclusive presenter of this exhibition.
“The Asian Art Museum is proud to provide a home for Bernice Bing’s emotionally expansive works within our contemporary collection and to bring long overdue attention to a pioneering Asian American female artist,” says Abby Chen, exhibition organizer and the head of contemporary art as well as associate senior curator at the museum. “Bing’s colorful canvases are alive with a unique feeling that speaks to her time, her place, and her distinctive self-awareness as an outlier in an environment that saw Asian American artists thriving with creativity and in a new visual discourse, but who remained significantly under-recognized. This exhibition is a timely corrective, showing audiences why we are restoring her to her rightful place in the Bay Area counterculture canon.”
Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1936, Bing lost both of her parents at the age of five and spent her childhood bouncing between a religious orphanage and multiple foster homes. After graduating from Oakland Technical High School in 1955, she received a scholarship to attend California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA), where she studied with famed Bay Area painter Richard Diebenkorn and Japanese painter and theorist Saburo Hasegawa, who introduced Bing to Zen Buddhism, Chinese philosophers, and traditional calligraphy and who was himself the subject of a major 2019 Asian Art Museum exhibition, Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan. This encounter may have been Bing’s first meaningful exposure to her Chinese cultural heritage. She then completed her B.F.A. and earned her M.F.A. at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute or SFAI), where she studied with painters such as Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell and became enmeshed in the city’s Beat Era art scene.
Highlights of Bing’s significant early work include A Lady with a Road Map, from 1962, with its broad planes of vivacious color and nearly recognizable abstract forms informed by both Abstract Expression and the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In 1963, Bing moved north to Napa County and her paintings, while still nonrepresentational, began to focus on what she called “the overwhelming spirituality of nature.” This approach deepened in subsequent years as she delved into New Age spirituality and spent time in meditative retreat at Esalen in Big Sur on the California coast.
Bing’s early commitment to abstraction continued to evolve, incorporating references to her Asian heritage, such as her Buddhist faith. Her investment in social activism and community development, specifically for Asian American and other nonwhite artists, included working to create the inclusive environment and support networks that she had lacked in her career, when she was overlooked by many galleries, museums, and art press.
In the 1970s, Bing was involved with San Francisco’s Neighborhood Arts Program, which supported artmaking across diverse city neighborhoods, from Hunter’s Point to Chinatown, and the Mission. In the 1980s, Bing served as the first executive director of the South of Market Cultural Center (now SOMArts), which promotes the work of artists from underserved communities, and she was a founding member of the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWA).
“Bing’s unapologetic grassroots approach made it hard for her to be celebrated by the ‘high art’ mainstream,” explains Chen. “Yet through this radical care she uplifted underserved neighborhoods and fostered an ecosystem of culture for Asian Americans that endures to this day.”
Never-Before-Seen Ink Drawings from Bing’s Final Years
The Asian Art Museum will exhibit nine ink drawings on paper, works that have never before been on public view. These nine drawings were from early in Bing’s career and illuminate her deep connections to Bay Area art from that period. They include several figure drawings from 1959, the year when Bing began her graduate study at the California School of Fine Arts, and are a welcome addition to the Bay Area canon of figure studies from an artist who was both Asian American and a woman. Her drawings begin as figurative imagery and incorporate both fine quill lines and brushy washes, but several quickly become more abstract. Her move in the 1960s to the California coastal Mayacamas mountains triggers a move to landscape imagery as she meditates on the beauty of her new environment.
In the 1980s, Bernice Bing’s abstraction began to display the influence of her Buddhist practice and of traditional Chinese art. In 1984, she received a Fulbright scholarship to China, where she studied calligraphy and traditional ink landscape painting, saying afterwards “I have made a path to my heart with Chinese calligraphy.” Her work following that formative trip synthesized calligraphy and abstraction and she often chose titles for her paintings that referenced the venerable Lotus Sutra, a core scripture in East Asian Buddhism.
Bing was diagnosed with hemochromatosis and lupus in the mid-1990s; she died in 1998 from cancer. Her last major work, Epilogue (1990–1995), on view in the exhibition, serves as a resume of her artistic development: abstract clusters, some suggesting figurative forms and others calligraphic sources, are arranged in a 24-foot-long linear composition that reads like the unrolling of a handscroll.
Also on display are ephemera from her archive that provide a glimpse into how she wove art, spirituality, and community into a holistic way of being.
Asian Art Museum Centers Marginalized Stories and Voices
The Asian Art Museum, under the guidance of curator Abby Chen, has also committed new funds and resources to a dedicated research scholar whose role will be to study the collection through the lens of gender and sexual identity, with the goal of surfacing untold—or previously unknown—stories about female and queer artists. This critical work, delivering on the museum’s investment in DEAI (diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion) within the curatorial field, will begin in earnest in the late summer of 2022 with the aim of outlining subjects for future exhibitions and programs.
“Into View: Bernice Bing is an opportunity for audiences to learn there is more to modern and contemporary art than what they’ve been told, that it is not a monolith in terms of gender, sexuality, culture, and place, but an intersection.” says Jay Xu, The Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum. “Bing’s ever-evolving practice was deeply reflective of both her Bay Area and her Chinese origins, and is inextricable from the circle of women artists she built up around her and which she helped sustain. With our museum’s recent transformation and expansion, we can offer more space for artists like Bing, and offer ourselves as a place of care, refuge, and imagination for Asian and Asian American culture and identity, in all its diverse forms.”
Into View: Bernice Bing is organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. This exhibition is made possible with the generous support of Terra Foundation for American Art.
Sustained support generously provided by the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Endowment Fund for Exhibitions.
About the Asian Art Museum
Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art, with more than 18,000 awe-inspiring artworks ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations. Dynamic special exhibitions, cultural celebrations and public programs for all ages provide rich art experiences that unlock the past and spark questions about the future.
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