Announcing the Archive of Visual Artist Bernice Bing
The Bowes Art & Architecture Library and the Department of Special Collections of the Stanford Libraries are pleased to announce the acquisition of the archive of visual artist, community activist, and Beat Generation proponent Bernice Bing. Bing (1936–1998) overcame numerous obstacles in her life to create paintings combining elements of New York and Bay Area abstraction with Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting practices. Her dynamic amalgamation of Eastern and Western aesthetics and philosophies led to unique abstract and gestural works with earthy palettes. As Bing noted: “Chinese calligraphy has been evolving for six thousand years, whereas in our Western society we are but primitives experiencing a new aesthetic. In my abstract imagery, I am attempting to create a new synthesis with a very old world.”[i]
Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, while the discriminatory impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act was still being felt, Bing’s time with her biological parents was short-lived. They both passed when Bing was a youngster, leading her to live with several foster families and her grandmother. Her talent in visual art became apparent in high school, when Bing submitted works to national art contests and won in the categories of sculpture, silkscreen, and watercolor painting. These accomplishments led to her earning a National Scholastic Award full scholarship in 1957 to the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in Oakland, California.
Bing’s time at CCAC proved to be foundational to her development as an artist. She studied with renowned practitioners of Bay Area abstraction such as Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliveira. While at CCAC Bing also trained with Saburo Hasegawa, an artist born in Japan and trained in France, who was a founder of the Nihon Abusutorakuto Āto Kurabu (Japanese Abstract Art Club) in New York. Hasegawa introduced Bing to sumi-e (a carbon-based ink) wash painting on paper and calligraphy. He rounded her education with tenets from Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, and as a writer and lecturer on the relationship between modernism and abstraction in Asian art and calligraphy, Bing benefited from his knowledge.[ii]
In 1960, a new chapter in Bing’s training came with her transfer to the California School of Fine Arts (renamed SF Art Institute in 1960) where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in 1959 and a Master of Fine Art’s (MFA) degree in 1961. At the Art Institute, Bing studied with Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell, who both took part in the Bay Area Figurative Movement and Bay Area Abstract Expressionism. Her classmates included such accomplished artists as Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Carlos Villa, and along with them, Bing became closely associated with the Beat Generation.
The Beat Generation in the 1950s and 1960s centered in San Francisco, is often conceived as a male dominated enterprise, with a strong focus on prose and poetry, as in the celebrated works of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Yet women visual artists like Bing, and musicians and performance-based artists, played a significant (and mostly unsung) role in shaping the ethos of the Beat Generation, and strongly impacting its cultural milieu.[iii] Bing was among a group of countercultural figures who spent ample time in the San Francisco studios of artists Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick, intermingling with like-minded and spirited artists.[iv] She was a fixture in the Beat world since to support her art studies, Bing worked as a cocktail waitress at the Vesuvio Café next to City Lights Books, and the art studio she rented was on the top floor of the Old Spaghetti Factory. She participated in the momentous Gangbang show at the Batman Gallery on Fillmore Street in 1960, with the Fillmore district/Western Addition becoming ground zero for the city’s multidisciplinary avant-garde. The Fillmore featured a multitude of performances by African American jazz musicians, and artist and poet run galleries; Allen Ginsberg’s famous reading of Howl happened at the Six Gallery. After Bing’s participation in the Batman group show, she had her first solo exhibition at the Gallery, garnering a positive review in the San Francisco Chronicle by Alfred Frankenstein.
Other aspects of her work and life worth noting, and that are reflected in her archive, are her legacy as a community/arts activist and organizer. Bing was a staff member of the Neighborhood Arts Program (under the auspices of the San Francisco Arts Commission). She wrote grants to support the work of artists and in collaboration with others created the Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP), creating “junk” sculpture. In 1970, she taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts and in 1980, she was appointed Director of the South of Market Center (SOMAR).[v] Two years before her death, Bing received the Visual Arts Honor Award of the National Women's Caucus for the Arts.
In addition to participating in group and solo exhibitions in San Francisco, Bing’s work was included in Asian Traditions /Modern Expression 1945–1970, a major exhibition organized by the Japanese American National Museum, that traveled to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Walnut Creek and Taiwan in 1997, and most recently the retrospective exhibition Bingo: The Life and Art of Bernice Bing, at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in 2019–2020.
The Bernice Bing Papers, which are yet to be processed, consist of Bing’s personal journals, notebooks, sketchbooks, ephemera, correspondence, business papers, photographs, prints, and slides. Once processed, the archive will be made available for consultation by researchers at Green Library’s Special Collections. Along with other collections held at Green Library’s Special Collections such as Art Com, New Langton Arts, and Artspace,[vi] the Bernice Bing Papers will help paint a picture of the dynamic art scene of the Bay Area as it played out in the 1950s through the 1990s. Bing’s contribution as a woman artist to the Beats can also be explored in juxtaposition with the Allen Ginsberg Papers and the Irving Rosenthal Papers.
The Stanford Libraries wish to recognize the generosity of the Bernice Bing Estate in enabling the Libraries to acquire the archive, and for their help in bringing to light the work and life of a profoundly talented and resilient artist.
Image: Mayacamas 3, by Bernice Bing. Oil on canvas, 1963. Reproduced with permission from the Bernice Bing Estate.
[i] Caroline Goese, “Bernice Bing,” in Asian Traditions Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970, ed. Jeffrey Wechsler (New York: Abrams, 1997), 149.
[ii] Susan Landauer, “The Dual Worlds of Bernice Bing,” in Out of the Shadows: Beat Women are Not Beaten, eds. Frida Forsgren and Michael J. Prince (Kristiansand, Norway: Portal Books, 2015), 215–216.
[iii] Out of the Shadows: Beat Women are Not Beaten, eds. Frida Forsgren and Michael J. Prince (Kristiansand, Norway: Portal Books, 2015), 11–12.
[iv] Landauer, “The Dual Worlds of Bernice Bing,”218.
[v] Caroline Goese, “Bernice Bing,” 149.
[vi] Artspace was an important independent experimental space for new art in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s. The Artspace archive is yet to be processed.