Last month I tagged along with a friend to that palace of tradition, the Royal Academy, to hear a lecture on the female Abstract Expressionists. These rare and exotic creatures in the American art scene are powerhouses in their own right, but are often left in the shadow of their male counterparts like Pollock, Gorky and de Kooning whose names have become powerhouses of the 20th century. With so many backwards steps taking place on the political stage, it seems more important than ever to celebrate these pioneering women. Amongst the list covered was one in particular that jumped off the page: the Chinese American painter Bernice Bing.
Someone that I had never heard of before, I was surprised and delighted to discover Bing’s poetic canvases in a photograph taken in her studio in the late 1950s. Lying on the floor in the downtown Bay Area of San Francisco, Bing (or ‘Bingo’ as she was playfully called by her family) stares confidently at the photographer. Around her are the calligraphic, expressive paintings that defined her career, inspired by a blend of Asian calligraphy and Zen buddhism that fearlessly combined West and East traditions.
Bing was brought up in San Francisco’s urban Chinatown sprawl with various Caucasian families following the death of her mother. Separated from her Chinese family and heritage, Bing struggled to establish her identity. A misfit from the beginning, Bing found her rhythm at art school under the tutelage of Richard Diebenkorn and Saburo Hasegawa. It was the Japanese painter Hasegawa that first forced Bing to confront herself as a Chinese woman in a new world of racial stereotypes in post-war America. At the forefront of the ‘Beat’ scene in San Francisco, Bing became known for their rebellious take on sexuality, racial identity and the human condition – helped along by some hefty use of psychedelics. Through shows at the Batman gallery of bold, monumental canvases she forged a name for herself amongst the North Beach creatives.
But why isn’t this public knowledge? For one thing, the American West Coast art scene is still only really just becoming mainstream to British audiences. The celebrated Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2015 was a particular watershed moment. Bing was also a lesbian, a status in America in the ’60s that made fame and fortune even more tricky, more so than for the wives of the Abstract Expressionists like Lee Krasner or Elaine de Kooning.
It is pretty alarming how unrepresented these women are, and that the name Bernice Bing had never crossed my path. But despite Bing’s refusal to build her career around the connection of wife, she worked amongst a group of fiercely talented women and her sensuous, gestural landscapes are breathtaking. The next question is of course – when will we see the West Coast female abstract expressionists as the headline act in a major British show? Jury’s out.