By Lydia Matthews
Quantum theory reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. . .but rather (nature) appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. . .In atomic physics, we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves. –Fritjof Capra, Tao of Physics (6, p. 68)
BINGO was Bernice Bing’s nickname. Bingo, a game of chance–a shout that punctuates a winning moment, when all numerical elements have lined up properly and a pattern emerges. A nickname filled with auspicious delight , energy, luck, accomplishment.
I didn’t have the honor of knowing Bingo while she was alive, but I’ve become familiar with the traces of her marks–those made by her brush and those left on her friends’ hearts, who tell me stories of this remarkable woman’s life and work. I have to reckon with her as history now, a ghost hovering gently around me with the broad grin that so often emanated from her face. I see it in her photographs, in her video–the generosity of spirit, sense of humor and deep wisdom in that Cheshire cat smile.
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, for Bernice Bing avoided trendy aesthetic fashions and refused to engage in the kind of self-promotion that is often required for art world notoriety. Her idea of success had everything to do with the caliber of one’s acts and little to do with recognition, although she enjoyed success on both fronts. She consistently engaged the most radical thinking of her time, allowing it to guide her art-making practice as an abstract painter in her solitary rural studio. Bing exhibited solo only rarely–in 1961, 1968 and 1991. By the last decade of her life, however, many curators sought out her legendary, critically acclaimed work for group shows and publications, particularly as interest piqued in reassessing Asian American contributions to the U.S. cultural landscape.
How does one inscribe Bernice Bing into the annals of Art History? How many histories must be simultaneously composed and interconnected to encompass the enormous field of her work? Historical Bingo. A history parallel to the structure of quantum physics: a complicated web of relations between various components of the whole, each existing as a unit but becoming part of a dynamic trajectory in an expanded field. Envision a historical grid: three down, three across. Quantum Bingo–call out the numbers to see which histories inter-connect:
One! Bernice Bing, the existential Abstract Expressionist, rooted in an international postwar sensibility; Two! Bing, the Beat generation/North Beach hipster; Three! Bing, the solitary nature-lover and landscape artist; Four! Bing, the urban community arts activist and administrator; Five! Bing, the pioneering New Age radical intellectual, on the cusp of interdisciplinary thought; Six! Bing, the Asian American woman artist in search of her cultural roots and diasporic community; Seven! Bing, the disciple of Chinese calligraphy; Eight! Bing, the lesbian painter; Nine! Bing, the devout Buddhist whose work was an extension of her spiritual practice.
ONE: Existential Abstract Expressionist
Existentialism was the first influence that persuaded me toward the abstract expressionist school of painting. The philosophical bases of Existentialism–one’s responsibility for making one’s own nature as well as personal freedom, independent decision making, and the importance of commitment–were to me the attitude of the abstract way of painting. The avant-garde of the late 50’s were inspiring times for the abstractionists: DeKooning, Kline, Miro, Motherwell, Still; in jazz: Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Monk, Mingus; in poetry: Stein, Pound, Genet, Maria Rilke; in literature: Camus, Gide, Hesse, Mann, de Beauvoir; in theater: Beckett, Genet, Albee; and in the art films: Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini. These were my mentors, muses and totems. (1, 2)
When Bernice Bing entered the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1957 on a student scholarship, she intended to study advertising–a professional field that was booming during an era of postwar capitalist expansion. Once there, she quickly shifted her focus to painting. At the young age of 21, she became enamored with the intense physicality of large-scale abstract painting and the existentialist philosophy that guided it. Rebellious and ambitious, Bingo asserted her sense of modernity by cultivating a cosmopolitan sensibility–one that was simultaneously influenced by a multi-disciplinary European avant garde, New York school painting, the African American jazz scene, and Asian aesthetics popularized by the western publication of D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen. As an abstract painter, she began to re-define her sense of identity in opposition to the prescribed “normalcy” of white middle class foster homes and the orphanage in which she was raised after her mother’s death–as well as against traditional gender/cultural expectations of her extended Chinese family in California.
At CCAC, Bingo met fellow students Manuel Neri and George Miyasaki; her instructors included Nathan Olivera, Richard Diebenkorn, and Saburo Hasegawa. It was Hasegawa, a Zen painter from Japan, who first introduced Bing to Asian philosophical traditions and aesthetic techniques. Unlike her grandmother, whose bound feet embodied a restrictive “old world” mentality to an insurgent granddaughter, Hasegawa represented a means of incorporating Eastern traditions into
the context of Western modernity. He communicated through poetic metaphors wearing traditional Zen robes, engaging color theory with origami paper and instructing students to draw the same model from an identical position throughout the entire semester, until it became so mentally ingrained that you could “see without seeing.” Inspired by this rigorous mental attitude, Bing began to study the poetry and thought of Po Chu-i, Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, Shakyamuni, and Wang Hsi-chih, the “calligraphic sage”–creative foundations that she would build upon throughout her life.
FIVE: Radical intellectual
In 1967, the Esalen Institute initiated its first 9 month residency program in New Age Psychology and Philosophy. Bingo was accepted into Esalen’s first group of residents, inspired to attend because of her profound interest in the writings of psychologist Carl J. Jung and visionary artist William Blake. Located along the dramatic California coast near Big Sur, Esalen residents formed an “encounter group” of radical thinkers, attending workshops by Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, R.D. Laing, Abraham H. Maslow, and Fritz Perls. Bing continued to paint while at Esalen, producing many small works including the Redonesque Big Sur, which symbolically represented a “demonic unconsciousness” breaking through the painting’s surface. The artist recalled the Esalen experience: It was amazing for someone who had been in the country three years after art school to come into such a totally bizarre environment, an ideology, a philosophy of people who had been working for years and years in psychoanalysis, parapsychology, psychic phenomena and mysticism. . .There was so much to be said. We didn’t have the information at that time, very little had been published about it. . .The whole concept of Esalen was to delve into a person’s psyche in depth in the same manner as drug experiences, to break down certain superficialities in order to reach the essential self . (1; 5, p. 9)
The deep immersion in mysticism and interdisciplinary thinking at Esalen fueled Bing’s life-long commitment to Buddhist meditation as a psychologically healing practice. It also attracted her to other intellectual texts which would greatly influence her art making, including Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics. A pioneering synthesis of modern scientific theory and eastern religious thought, Capra’s book popularized the notion of quantum physics for a lay public. Bing eagerly interpreted these theoretical principles in her “Quantum Series” paintings of 1991-93: During this period. . .I conceptualized the Quantum idea visually. One aspect of quantum theory is the particles of the sub-atom community can be either an entity unit in itself or can become part of a wave (movement energy). I began painting each panel (unit) separately, which were visually independent from each other. There was not an apparent relationship between each unit. However, an intuitive sense of the total image was maintained throughout the work in process. . . (3)
TWO: Artist in the Beat Scene
By 1958, Bing transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute in the heart of bohemian North Beach, a Mecca of Beat Generation activities. There she financed her painting studies by cocktail waitressing at Vesuvio’s, as well as waiting tables at the Spaghetti Factory, where she had a studio on the top floor–popular sites among poets and artists as diverse as Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jay de Feo, Wally Hedrick, Carlos Villa and Bruce Conner. She developed life-long friendships within that community and became legendary in the North Beach party scene as a hard drinking dancer as well as a powerful visual artist. To honor her fiery presence, the Cellar Bar invented a drink called the “Bingotini”–a martini made with 151 proof rum.
As a student in the first Master’s program at SFAI, her classmates included Joan Brown (a close friend with whom she would travel to New York in 1960), William T. Wiley, Cornelia Schulz, Leo Valledor, Alvin Light and Robert Hudson. Taught by Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell, she developed a style of painting evident in “Two Plus” (1960), in which forms emerge from atmospheric voids, created by layering washes over strong, solid colors and impasto brushstrokes. Regarded highly by her peers as a formidable “painter’s painter”, she was at the forefront of the Bay Area’s budding avant garde gallery world after graduating with an MFA in 1961. Bing had one of the first ten solo exhibitions at the dynamic Batman Gallery, where her works were displayed on black walls. Critics and hipsters flocked to the space, and Bingo’s show was reviewed glowingly by Alfred Frankenstein in the San Francisco Chronicle.
FOUR: Community arts activist
Bingo’s prodigious political activism as a community-based artist immediately followed her 1967 residency at Esalen Institute. This may have been the artist’s means of translating her personal psychological transformation into radical social action–an attitude deeply rooted in her Existentialist sensibility.
Nancy Hanks, then Director of the National Endowment for the Arts Expansion Program in Washington D.C., invited Bingo to participate on a 1968 panel devising new ways to engage people of color in contemporary art. Hanks was so inspired by her discussions with Bing that she established a national model that would provide moneys for local communities to create programs catering to their constituents’ needs. This funding enabled the San Francisco Arts Commission to develop the Neighborhood Arts Program, which Bing co-organized between 1969-71. During a violent phase in the Chinatown-North Beach area, she established an art workshop with the Baby Wah Chings, a Chinatown gang that gave eleven to thirteen year olds a place to channel their energies. She also orchestrated many Asian American cultural festivals, some of which featured Betty and Shirley Wong’s “Flowing Stream Ensemble”, a Chinatown-based avant garde group who performed contemporary compositions using traditional Chinese instruments.
After a year-long hiatus in the country, where she returned to focus on studio painting, Bingo moved back to the city and was hired by CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a federal jobs program). Under the auspices of CETA and the Neighborhood Arts Program, she co-founded SCRAP (Scroungers’ Center for Reusable Art Parts)–an ecologically-oriented project devoted to scrounging discarded supplies and materials for community art programs while creatively storing them in the form of an ever-changing junk sculpture at Pier 3 in Fort Mason. Along with working for the California Arts Council, she directed the South of Market Cultural Center from 1980-84, one of the first four alternative cultural venues established by the SF Arts Commission. There Bingo developed the exhibition space, secured non-profit status, and curated controversial programs like the inaugural “Salon des Refusés,” which featured artists rejected from the San Francisco Art Institute’s 110th anniversary exhibition. For her extraordinarily innovative community service, Bingo was frequently awarded numerous civic honors–although she ultimately chose to leave these urban activities to once again focus on her work in the studio.
THREE: Rural Landscape Painter
After completing the MFA program in 1961, Bingo left the city for a caretaker job at the Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley, where she pursued a quiet, rural lifestyle, painting prolifically for the next three years. In contrast to her socially active student days, Bingo focused on the natural dynamism of the environment for her subject matter and source of spiritual inspiration. A May 1964 Artforum review of her two-person Berkeley Gallery exhibition describes the “Mayacamas” work of this period: “Her 12 paintings. . .are something of a biography. The earliest works, though competently painted, are completely detached views of the expanse of a valley from a mountain top–lifeless without the foil of a figure. But in #12 and #13, done in October and November of 1963, Miss Bing begins to see the landscape as environment, and to enjoy it as such. She loses the dry, still-life-of-mountains approach and responds with genuine enthusiasm to the plastic movement of a rock-face, a sweep of hilltop, or an upland meadow.” (1, 5, p. 29)
The bucolic nature of the countryside sustained the artist at various intervals in her life, particularly after periods of intense urban activity or travel. From 1985 until her death, Bingo made her home near Philo, a small town in Mendicino county. It provided her with ample physical and psychological space, a slow paced rhythm and the time to study and represent nature as an extension of her Buddhist practice. In 1990 Bing said of the country: For me all nature is pure, and purely abstracted, and the spiritual union links both the seen and unseen forms. The freedom, for example, is seeing a tree as pure energy, light and mass made up of linear particles. (1, 2)
EIGHT: Lesbian painter
Although she remained closeted within her Chinese family and community, Bingo was a sensuous, earthy and private woman who was active in an underground lesbian network. In her youthful urban days, she frequented the Wild Side West Bar in North Beach, a favorite pool-table haunt among gays and straights alike. After moving to Philo she became a beloved member of a large rural lesbian community. While she typically avoided claiming a group identity like “feminist” or “lesbian,” and adamantly opposed separatist philosophies, she generously participated within organizations that supported women leading creative and alternative lifestyles, including Lesbian Visual Artists, Rural Women’s Resources, Inc., Women’s Caucus for the Arts and the Asian American Women’s Artist Association.
While most of her works have no overt references to gender issues, there are some exceptions. From 1975-77, she created a rare series of thirteen figurative works based on Rogier van der Weyden’s “Portrait of a Lady.” “I liked the posture and said to myself, why couldn’t this be a universal posture? I kept the posture the same but changed the mood and emotional quality and the ethnicity of the woman, and took the image into fantasy and mythology. . .” (1; 5, p. 15) The series offers a critique of Eurocentric standards of feminine beauty as seen through a lesbian gaze–one that appreciates differences and commonalties within the female body.
Another work by Bingo that invites a queer reading is her drawing wittily entitled “Cuntry” (1988). Created after moving to Philo, it manifests an unmistakably vaginal tree trunk accompanied by wildly energetic limbs. Such imagery was foreshadowed in her 1983 series, “Unfoldings,” which explore overtly erotic forms–drawings that Bingo chose not to exhibit publicly. As Bing described in an interview in 1988, “. . .trees in California, the oak trees–are very exciting in the way they grow, in the mystery behind their growth, in how the branches stretch out. There are extraordinary structures within each tree that are very attractive to my painting style in calligraphic abstract terms. Also, I have been experimenting. . in allowing the unconscious mind to bring forth imagery as the picture begins to give an indication of its own life.” (4, p. 4) “Cuntry”–which visually relates to many of the vital calligraphic paintings of this period like her magnificent “Other Window” (1989)–suggests that organic energy is by nature sexual, rooted in her experiences of the female body.
SEVEN: Chinese Calligraphy Disciple
Having been introduced to Zen calligraphic forms in 1959 under the tutelage of Saburo Hasegawa, Bingo understood the affinity between this ancient Asian art form and the vigorously executed brushwork of the American Abstract Expressionists she so admired. Both systems cultivate intuitive and spontaneous mark-making, suggesting that painting can be an act of psychological discovery for the maker. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, however, having closed the chapter on her many years of community-based arts activism, that she decided to study calligraphy in a more formal way.
In 1984-85, Bingo departed on an extended trip to Asia, hoping to reclaim the aesthetic sources that had inspired her as a student. She traveled to Korea, Japan and China to study calligraphy and painting at the Zhejiang Academy in Haungshou. Upon returning to California, the artist patiently sustained her calligraphic exercises, filling pages of drawing pads and executing hundreds of calligraphic characters on paper rolls. Using calligraphy “as a way of practicing meditation, almost as a warm up exercise,” Bingo began to synthesize calligraphy with her abstract painting style, thereby attempting to “create a new synthesis with a very old world. . .I started using these calligraphic studies with a combination of my natural environment in Philo as a means of departure for the new work. I began employing calligraphic lines to create areas of great density, of masses, and working with overlays of color to create the intensity of light, etc. in the landscape.” (1; 5, p. 16)
These paintings include what is arguably her masterwork, “Epilogue, 1990-95, a monumental triptych that reveals Bing’s brilliant command of calligraphic line, vibrant color and pulsating space.
SIX: Asian American Artist
A third generation Chinese American, Bingo grew up feeling conflicted about her Asian identity. Raised as an orphan in the context of white middle class communities, she had only periodic contact with her extended Chinese family in the Bay Area. Unconventional on multiple levels, she did not fit comfortably within either world. To resolve these tensions, Bingo developed ways to synthesize her bicultural heritage within her life and work. As she told critic Valerie Soe: “Art has really been the way I have been able to understand both cultures, and to undo the wrongdoing of both cultures.” (1; 5, p.4)
She not only fused East/West traditions in her painting style, but also in her activities as a community activist in San Francisco’s Chinatown-North Beach district (itself a geographical intersection of Chinese and Italian cultures.) Like many members of a diaspora, she sought a deeper understanding of her cultural ancestry and so made a three month pilgrimage to Asia to focus primarily on her family’s homeland. There she discovered what parts of herself were unmistakably American, and which aspects of her cultural heritage she had consciously and unconsciously embraced.
At Jay de Feo’s birthday party in 1989, art historian Moira Roth told Bing about a new group called the Asian American Women Artists Association that had recently formed in the Bay Area. Despite the lengthy commute to the city, she eagerly participated in AAWAA and even hosted their 1996 retreat at her home in Philo. The contacts with over 70 women of diverse cultural backgrounds and exposure afforded by AAWAA’s various curatorial projects was of great value to the artist. Her commitment to the political mission of the organization was simply an extension of the values she had worked for throughout her lifetime.
NINE: Practicing Buddhist
Buddhist meditation practice, with its rituals and chanting, have been of great importance to the artist. At the end of her life, Bingo was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism, inspired by her Spring 1998 retreat at Odiyan and the Tibetan Temple on the Northern California Coast. Until that time she had been involved with a more outer-directed form of Buddhism, one focusing on peace and social justice. Her journals from this final period describe her engagement with the Tibetan Healing form of meditation called Kum Nye–part slow movement like Tai-chi and yoga positions–which may have helped alleviate the many serious health ailments which plagued her final years. She also described the vast visual appeal of Tibetan Buddhism’s architecture and icons. She felt inspired to expand her palette away from contrast colors toward more subtle and muted tones like those on the Tanka she had witnessed, and began creating a new series of watercolors based on cosmic egg imagery. On the relation between art and Buddhist spirituality, Bingo 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.”(7)
Does anyone have a “Bingo” yet? Clearly, any one of the histories in this number game would constitute a formidable argument for further scholarly research into Bernice Bing. It is the complex and dynamic relations between these historical components, however, that reveals the extraordinary value of her cultural legacy. As an artist, a radical thinker, a Chinese American, a lesbian, a Buddhist–she strove to live an ordinary life in a profoundly non-ordinary way. Bingo’s life often went against the grain; her works were acts of trust and faith.
To remain committed to an expressionist painting style years after the critical community had turned their gaze to other art historical “isms” was itself an act of aesthetic defiance against mainstream presumptions. Art critic Thomas Albright said of Bingo’s 1968 solo exhibition at the California College of Arts and Crafts Gallery: “The paintings of Bernice Bing form one of those rare, but strong, reminders that Abstract Expressionism has neither died nor faded away. Her show includes perhaps a dozen paintings in the old heroic scale, and reflecting the old integrity that is satisfied with only the most magnificent of statements, rather than displaying every variation on a theme.”(1, 5, p.31) Now, thirty years later, we recognize that to reduce Bingo’s work to the category of “Abstract Expressionism” alone would blind us to the profound originality and integrity of her paintings. As viewers, artists, art historians and museum curators, we must begin to think in more quantum dimensions, as Bingo did so powerfully throughout her lifetime.
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. (3)
1. Bernice Bing website: https://queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Bingshow/BBNav.html
2. Bernice Bing, Artist Statement for “Completing the Circle” exhibition, Southern Exposure Gallery, San Francisco, 1990
3. Bernice Bing, Artist Statement for the Triton Museum Exhibition, 10/18/92
4. “Interview with Bernice Bing,” Roar I News, Rural Women’s Resources, Inc., Oct. 1988
5. Moira Roth and Diane Tani, eds. Bernice Bing, exh. cat., Berkeley: Visibility Press, 1991
6. Fritjof Capra, Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Third Edition, Boston: Shambhala, 1991
7. Moira Roth, Video Interview with Bernice Bing, 1989
San Francisco, 1999
by Lydia Matthews