Love Letter to Bernice Bing

Bernice Bing, Mayacamas No. 6, March 12 1963, 1963.

One of my favorite aspects of the strict stay-at-home orders of March and April was the way that my Instagram feed became a portal into the inner lives of my friends. I spent hours looking at others reading, cooking, drawing, and lying in bed, seeing aspects of their creative and domestic lives that otherwise I would have never come to know.

The work of Bernice Bing (1936–1998) has the same effect on me. I think I can say I fell in love with her at first photograph: Bing on her stomach on a paint-splattered wood floor, legs crossed like she rolled into place accidentally, staring firmly at the camera, as though she was as curious about me as I about her.

But even more, it is Bing’s practically-forgotten, calligraphy-inflected West Coast abstract expressionism that captivates me. A Chinese-American lesbian, she defies abstract expressionism’s aesthetic white-hetero-male-ness, its pretense of representing the psyche stripped of context, by simple virtue of her biography. Bing makes abstraction a tool to interrogate philosophies of the mind and the self, ideas of interior and exterior, Chinese and US culture. At the same time, she breaks down the very duality of abstraction and realism. As her thick brushstrokes become ideograms—figures that mean something only after they generate an aesthetic response—she creates a new way of representing northern California, one in which the landscape opens up the inner worlds to which abstraction aims. “I am attempting to create a new synthesis with a very old world,” she said.

Bernice Bing’s work is what abstraction looks like when it is home alone, cozy, with no one watching.