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3 takeaways from the Asian Art Museum’s celebration of Bernice Bing, the groundbreaking SF-born painter

Bernice Bing in her North Beach studio around 1961 | Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum

With its recent acquisition of 24 works by San Francisco-born Chinese American painter Bernice Bing, the Asian Art Museum will reveal some never-before-seen pieces by the groundbreaking artist in a new exhibition dedicated to her career. 

Into View: Bernice Bing sheds new light on key elements of Bing’s often underappreciated life and career—exploring her deep ties to the city, her personal dualities, her role as an activist in her community and the physical burden she sometimes felt in producing her work:

“The highest form of art is a vehicle,” the San Francisco-born native said. “Like a mantra.” 

Here are three takeaways from the exhibition.

Self-portrait by Bernice Bing, 1960 | Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum

Bing Belongs in San Francisco

Bing was born in 1936 in Chinatown and orphaned when she was just 5 years old. Though her talent was never fully appreciated in her lifetime (she died in 1998), Bing held an important role in the cultural zeitgeist of the city. 

She received a National Scholastic Award in 1955 to enroll at San Francisco’s California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts), where she studied with the well-known figurative artist Richard Diebenkorn and abstract painter Saburo Hasegawa. The latter introduced her to Zen Buddhism and traditional calligraphy, both of which became inspirations for her work. 

Multiple institutions were competing to acquire Bing’s work in the run-up to Into View, according to Abby Chen, senior curator and exhibition organizer, but the Asian Art Museum won out and secured 24 of Bing’s pieces (Stanford University has her writings as well as one artwork). 

When Chen spoke with the artist’s family, she swayed them in part by asking—wouldn’t Bing want to stay in San Francisco, the city that was her creative home? 

Dueling Identities 

“Never out me,” Bing, a once-closeted lesbian, is reported to have told her closest friends. It provided a conundrum for Chen when assembling the show about the Chinese American’s art and life. Should she respect the artist’s wishes or acknowledge her sexuality?

She found her answer when reading Bing’s writings, where the artist identified the struggles of living as a lesbian and Asian woman in a white world. “This is how she refers to herself,” Chen said, justifying her decision to incorporate Bing’s identity as a lesbian as a component of the exhibition. 

Bing’s work—and life—explores the tension between the many dualities she juggled with: public and private, American and Asian, connector and separator. 

“I was living and reacting to parallel worlds,” Bing writes, “one, the rational, conscious world of the West; the other, the intuitive, unconscious world of the East.” Bing credits Hasegawa for being the first to get her thinking about what it meant to be an Asian woman. 

Tellingly, Bing paints her 1960 self-portrait with a white mask that recalls traditional Japanese theater, which seems both shy and playful, secretive and revealing. 

While Bing did not know how to read and write in Chinese, she incorporated calligraphy into her work with her own signature abstract style. She also employed the symbolism of the lotus as a recurring theme in her work—the flower that is born out of dirt, but grows up to be unpolluted. 

A Lady and a Road Map by Bernice Bing, 1962 | Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum

Activist Artist 

Bing overcame her shyness and reluctance to take part in groups that were vital to strengthening her community. 

She cofounded the Scroungers’ Center for Reusable Art Parts (S.C.R.A.P.) in 1975 and served as the first director of the South of Market Cultural Center, or SOMArts (where you can currently view To Love and Be Loved in Return, an exhibition of art inspired by El Día de los Muertos). 

The artist was also a founding member of the Asian American Women Artists Association and became involved in San Francisco’s Neighborhood Arts Program in the 1970s, which fostered art-making across diverse neighborhoods. 

Into View: Bernice Bing is an opportunity for audiences to learn there is more to modern contemporary art than what they’ve been told,” said Jay Xu, CEO of the Asian Art Museum. “Bing’s ever-evolving practice was deeply reflective of both her Bay Area and Chinese origins.” 

Into View: Bernice Bing 

Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St.
Thursday 1-8 p.m., Friday-Monday 10-5 p.m.
On view through May 23, 2023

Julie Zigoris can be reached at