The Worlds of Bernice Bing

As with many discoveries in this modern world in which we inhabit, I found out about Bernice Bing via a popular social networking site. Bernice was a part of the San Francisco bohemian and activist landscape throughout her life, and I was irritated that I had never heard of her. Especially because I work at City Lights, a locus for secret histories and underground artists, which is located in the same neighborhood where Bernice had a studio in the late fifties/early sixties, over The Old Spaghetti Factory. Bernice had her first exhibition at the Batman Gallery, a notorious beat art space named by Michael McClure and frequented by the likes of Bruce Connor. The images of her work were powerful and it was frustrating that it had remained unknown to me until that moment. However, However, Asian American Women Artist Association, Cultural Activist and Writer Jen Banta and filmmaker Madeleine Lim are making a film about Bernice’s life and work. Here is an interview with Jen Banta, about Bernice and about this exciting new project. -Layla Gibbon


How did you discover Bernice Bing’s work?
Serendipity has played an amazing role in my personal discovery of Bernice Bing’s work. I wrote about this in The Painting in the Rafters, because it is a fairly remarkable story and also it is emblematic of the fact that Bing’s life and work had fallen through the cracks of history. Five years ago, when I was working at APICC, located in the SOMArts Cultural Center, where she was the first Executive Director, one of her large canvases was stored above my desk in the rafters. I started asking questions: Why was it stored up there? Could we take it down and look at it? Who knew Bernice Bing and why was virtually nothing written about her?  I was doing the work of cultural activism and supporting community-based arts in the footsteps of Bernice Bing. I wanted to learn more about her. Once I started talking to people, I realized that many of the people I had been working with and had previously studied with, had been friends with Bing; all of them had memories and stories to share. I discovered the phenomenal archive on QCC’s website, lovingly put together by artists and archivists, Rudy Lemcke and Lenore Chinn. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know about her and the shadow histories of this era. I was awe-struck by her paintings and the Batman Gallery Poster seemed to offer a glimpse into another chapter of Beat History. I am a native of S.F. and seeing the poster really blew my mind. It was at this time that I was completing the final year of graduate work in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of Arts. I decided that I would dedicate my thesis project to un-cover and re-frame her story. I knew this was only a tipping point. There was still much work to be done. Two years later, when Artist Nancy Hom and Asian American Women Artist Association approached me with the idea of applying to Cal Humanities Community Story Grant to make a documentary about Bing’s life, I knew that this was a brilliant next step. Bing’s life was rich with influences from Chinatown, the Beat scene in North Beach with jazz, fellow painters and wild times, to her time painting up North in the country amongst a close circle of women friends.  Her paintings are bold and lush and fearless, from gestural abstractions to sensuous landscapes. All of these elements seemed so deeply cinematic.

A biography of Bernice…

Bernice Bing was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1936. Her mother and aunt worked as hat girls and dancers in Chinatown’s infamous Forbidden City, a Chinese-themed cabaret frequented by military personnel. Bing’s mother died when she was a young girl. Though her father, grandmother and aunt were alive, both her and her younger sister spent their childhood shuttled between Caucasian foster homes with only sporadic contact with her Asian relatives and infrequent visits back to Chinatown. In her own words, “My grandmother represented China, the old country, bringing over her feelings of anger and subservience, but her strength, too. She was a woman who had bound feet, bound at the age of five.” Her grandmother recognized her artistic ability at a young age and by the time she was in high school, despite the instability of her childhood, she entered art contests and won awards and recognition. In 1958 Bing transferred from the California College of Arts and Crafts where she had studied advertising, to the California School of Fine Arts, (now the San Francisco Art Institute) to pursue a degree in painting. She earned a BFA with honors and went on to graduate as part of the first MFA class in 1961. Bernice Bing, or Bingo as she was affectionately called since childhood, was part of a Bay Area art scene that included Joan Brown, Bill Wiley, Robert Hudson, Leo Valledor and Cornelia Schulz- colleagues in her 1961 MFA class at the California School of Fine Arts. After her graduation, she had a one-person exhibition at the Batman Gallery, one of several Beat galleries that appeared briefly during the late fifties and early sixties in San Francisco. Alfred Frankenstein wrote a stellar review of Bing’s solo show at the Batman in the San Francisco Chronicle followed by early critical acclaim with 1963 and 1964 Art Forum reviews. Bing had access to the art world as an integral player. Her marginalization occurred with the passage of time.

Whenever I talk to anyone about Bernice she seems to be known for her community work, more so than in the context of her early work and involvement in the nascent post-war modern art scene.

Bernice Bing and Joan Brown went to NYC shortly after their graduation where they met Marcel Duchamp and attended many gallery openings and gatherings.  I have been giving a great deal of thought to the choice all three of these women made, even for very different reasons, to stay in San Francisco rather than go to NYC to make art.  I think that it is important to think about who and how one defines success for an Artist. This definition usually has to do with the attainment of wealth and status that was not really and avenue open to women artists, let alone lesbians of color. I think that Bing’s choice to not engage with the NYC art industry certainly may have effected her career, but I see this as a choice she made in the face of limited options and in the end, a choice to follow what she knew to be true and what was resonant with her vision and sensibilities. The parallel with Jay DeFeo’s story is poignant, considering that both of these women died way too young and struggled with similar issues toward the end of their lives. However, difficulties in surviving financially as an artist, time devoted to administrative duties (such as her role as the first Executive Director of the South of Market Cultural Center, now known as SomArts), and her failing health also impacted Bing greatly. It is a confluence of many different factors. The specter of invisibility and accessing the space of forgotten stories became a catalyst for my research. What continues to delight me is the unfolding of details that reveal the complex and dynamic relations between Bing’s life and work. Given the hard struggles during her childhood and early in her life, the choice she made to pursue art as a medium seems remarkable.

I do believe that one of the reason she was able to garner a one-woman show at the Batman Gallery was because of her fearless large-scale canvases, similar to what her male-counterparts were producing. Bing was a fierce painter and she could hold her own. In this bohemian milieu, the masculine world of the literati and the male subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism dominated. Women were present as business partners and artists, but their mobility was limited owing, in part, that within the avant-garde there was still a lot of sexism. The two prominent women in this group were close friends of Bing’s, Joan Brown, married to Manuel Neri and Jay De Feo, married to Wally Hedrick. A woman’s success and visibility as an artist was no doubt heightened by the partnerships she formed. Bernice Bing, as a lesbian and a woman of color, was outside of this world.

Abstract Expressionism is a story that has been told as a triumph of the outsider. This narrative, based on the trials of a privileged group of white, heterosexual bohemians and intellectuals, reflects the story of Abstract Expressionism as it has been written into the art historical canon. Abstract Expressionism, Other Politics by Anne Gibson and Artist Carlos Villa’s brilliant project, Re-Historicizing the Time Around Abstract Expressionism are two examples of significant scholarship that are beginning to fill in the missing pieces of this story as it has been told. These are important points that need to be acknowledged and give context to understanding time and place. I also believe that Bernice Bing’s paintings speak for themselves and do so powerfully. People need to see her work and hear about her story.

How is work on the film going? Do you have a favorite moment? When can we expect to see “The Worlds of Bernice Bing?”

We have assembled an amazing team to work on this film: Filmmaker Madeleine Lim, founder of QWOCMAP, myself, Kebo Drew, Amal Kouttab, Shari Ari DeBoer and Asian American Women Artist Association, Art Historian Moira Roth of Mills College, Artists Lenore Chinn, Flo Oy Wong, Kim Anno, Carlos Villa, Nancy Hom, Art Historian Tirza Latimer of CCA, Frieda Weinstein and Bing Estate Executor, Alexa Young. This is only a partial list of an eclectic and brilliant group of people who knew Bernice, have been touched by her work, and are devoted to telling her story. The film crew spent countless hours re-tracing Bing’s steps through North Beach and up to Philo where she lived the last ten years of her life. We listened to the memories and insights of our interviewees. This process has been a powerfully moving experience.

The Worlds of Bernice Bing documentary will have a world premiere film screening at the 2013 Queer Women of Color Film Festival in June.
Stay tuned for more details.
We are launching our indiegogo campaign on Monday, November 26, 2012.
We encourage everyone who hears about our project to help spread the word.
Please do not under-estimate the enormous power of sharing!
Jen Banta is a San Francisco based scholar, curator and cultural activist.

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