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The Painting in the Rafters: Re-Figuring Abstract Expressionist Bernice Bing
What is the mystery? The mystery is the work in process. Visually, I sense a great order of things and attempt to transpose this mystery into a picture. I used to look for meaningful order in life, now I am accepting things as IS. That nothing is certain, and in my imagery is ever-changing. We are at an epoch of a brave new world, and my hope is that our views will change about how we see our world, not to stay with the things familiar, but to reach out for the unknown.
- Bernice Bing, Artist Statement for the Triton Museum Exhibition, 10/18/92
My tiny office with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, perched above the SomArts Gallery, is a site for exchange, community, politics, laughter, and ambitious cultural production. SomArts, one of six city-owned cultural centers, has history in every crevice The ineffable presence of those who came before pervades this space. Stored beneath the rafters above my desk, for example, was a 1980 painting by the first Executive Director of SomArts--painter Bernice Bing. Burney Falls was one of several canvases that she painted of this location in Northern California, sometimes called the eighth wonder of the natural world. (fig. 1)
1. Bing, Bernice. Burney Falls. 1980. Oil on Canvas, 96 x 77 3/4".
I was told that Bing’s painting had been haphazardly propped up in the hallway until it was recognized and rescued to higher ground. The fact that Bing’s painting was stored in such a manner would seem to be at worst a high art crime, at best sheer neglect. I could not reconcile this lack of respect, yet it seemed oddly emblematic of the treasure trove that is SomArts, where high and low art comingle.
The specter of invisibility has become the conduit for considering how a desire to create a visual archive of Bernice Bing’s life, art, and legacy has as much to do with excavating and preserving the material of her artwork as with her lived experience. I needed to understand the importance of the spiritual path Bing followed and the meditation practice that gave her focus and confidence as well as her search for her diasporic community in order to begin to navigate this in-between space. By approaching this task experientially, through listening to stories, looking at her paintings, and reading her journals, I too have found myself in the mystery of constant discovery. I am drawn to this state of absence, and I find that presence is returned by how I negotiate this space. I believe that art provides a medium for accessing this space of forgotten stories-- making visible the invisible. As if the catalyst for my intent had been far closer than I could have realized, with Burney Falls hanging above my head every day, Bernice Bing’s oeuvre needed to be, in effect, dusted off and brought to light.
What exactly were the conditions that contributed to Bing’s marginalization? It is perhaps all too familiar an occurrence that a lesbian artist of color was filtered out of art history. If I accept this reality as a given, then I must also go beyond this banal fact and tease out the details of her story. There are so many facets of Bing’s identity--all of which beckon to be further explored, including the period of Beat history that contains such fissures and forgotten stories. Bing had access to the art world as an integral player. Her marginalization occurred with the passage of time.
Perhaps the materialistic aspect of preserving Bing’s art is antithetical to the fact that her work was rooted in process and the negotiation of mystery. On the relation between art and Buddhist spirituality, Bing stated, “I haven't learned to let go of art. The highest form of art is a vehicle, a mantra. I am burdened by the materialistic aspect of producing art.” I am intrigued by the complex and dynamic relations between Bing’s life and work. At present, there is little written about Bernice Bing save for the work begun by Moira Roth and the memorial essay written by Lydia Matthews, both archived on the Queer Cultural Center’s website by Rudy Lemcke. Despite this paucity of textual material, I find myself in the privileged position of being surrounded by people who knew and loved her.
Spontaneous moments arise at SomArts where I find myself in conversation with people who knew Bernice Bing. Bing’s life had a catalyzing effect on a group of people who came together after her death to remember and honor her life, and who remain connected. Lydia Matthews, in the essay she wrote to memorialize Bing after her death, Quantum Bingo, writes, “Hers was a powerfully sustained yet quiet career. This kind of artist can easily fall through historical cracks if we do not diligently keep her memory alive.” Indeed, Bing has now largely fallen through the cracks, though in her lifetime she was quite visible. During the 1950s, Bing was among the first generation of post-war women artists in California, and after her graduation, Bing enjoyed a one-person exhibition at the Batman Gallery, one of several Beat galleries that appeared briefly during the late ’50s and early ’60s in San Francisco. Bing appears in the poster announcing her 1961 show, surrounded by her paintings in her studio above the Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, the seat of Beat activity. Bing received early critical acclaim for her work with a 1963 and 1964 Artforum review by critic James Monte. In many ways, this period marked the beginning of a promising career. However, this level of recognition waned substantially over the ensuing years, often due to her difficulties in surviving financially as an artist, time devoted, at least in part, to administrative duties (such as her role as the first Executive Director of SomArts), and her failing health. (fig. 2)
Figure 2. Charles Snyder, Batman Gallery Poster. 1961.
The art community in the San Francisco Bay area experienced a surge of creative energy after World War II, and the city was the site of interchanges between abstract painters, Beat poets, jazz musicians, the West and East coasts, as well as artistic and spiritual contacts with Asia. This zenith of creativity encompassed a Beat sensibility that included collaboration, collectivity, and many forms of artistic expression. What was it like to come of age artistically during these times? In many ways, this post-war period represented a liminal stage, and Bing was an integral player in this moment.
San Francisco’s Bohemian history is rich and has been lovingly documented in numerous publications, yet these tales are only part of the story. In the Bohemian milieu, the masculine world of the literati and the male subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism dominated. Of course, women were present and not just as wives and stunning guests at parties and openings, but as business partners and artists. Rebecca Solnit has written extensively about Beat painting as concurrent with that of the literati’s activities during this period in the catalog accompanying the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition, Beat Culture and The New America, 1950-1965. She explicates that though the historical focus has always been on the literati’s activities in North Beach, the strong presence of painters and jazz musicians in the Western Addition promoted significant artistic exchange. The two prominent women in this group that Solnit writes about were close friends of Bing’s: Jay De Feo (married to Wally Hendrick) and Joan Brown (married to Manuel Neri).
Romantic alliances that were formed within this bohemian haven were an integral part of the movement and formed a nexus of lovers, partners, and roommates. A woman’s success and visibility as an artist was no doubt heightened by the partnerships she formed with successful men, and in many ways created a conflation of roles previously prescribed to women in bohemia’s history, such as the unsettled distinction between woman as muse and woman as artist. This idea was perhaps most clearly defined within Surrealism by Andre Breton, who attributed the female muse with child-like qualities that he saw as closer to the unconscious than men were. Although De Feo and Brown were talented artists in their own right, I think it is important to question why they are written about and not Bernice Bing, the lesbian artist. Their marriages, as far as history is concerned, ensure that they are remembered by association.
 In 1960, Bing accompanies Joan Brown a close friend at this time, to New York, for Brown's first one-person show at the Staempfli Gallery. Meets Duchamp at a party. "That was my most thrilling experience in New York." Moira Roth, “A Narrative Chronology”, in Moira Roth & Diane Tani, eds. Bernice Bing, (Berkeley, CA: Visibility Press, 1991), 22-23.
© Jennifer Banta, 2009