Bernice Bing, given the nickname “Bingo” as a child, was born in San Francisco, California's Chinatown in 1936. Bing's father was an immigrant from Southern China while her mother was born in America.
When Bing was six, her mother died due to a heart ailment, leaving Bing with limited exposure to her traditional Chinese heritage. Raised in numerous Caucasian foster homes with her sister, Bing also lived in the Ming Quong Home, a girls' custodial home in Oakland's Chinatown, for some time. Bing occasionally stayed in Oakland with her grandmother, whose praises fostered Bing's interest in art. As a rebellious child who did not do well academically, Bing turned to drawing, which helped her to stay connected.
Bing was involved in the arts throughout high school, winning several local and regional art contests. After graduating from Oakland Technical High School in 1955, she briefly attended the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) initially as an advertising major, then later as a painting one. During her time there, Bing was instructed by Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), and Saburo Hasegawa (1906-1957), who especially made an impact on Bing. A Japanese-born painter, Hasegawa introduced Bing to Zen Buddhism, Chinese philosophers, including Lao Tzu and Po Chu-i, and traditional calligraphy. Her encounter with Hasegawa also incited her to start thinking of her identiy as an Asian woman.
In 1958, after one semester in CCAC, Bing transferred to the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute). There, she studied with Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell and eventually earned a B.F.A. with honors in 1959 followed by an M.F.A. in 1961. To support herself as a student, Bing also maintained a studio in North Beach above the Old Spaghetti Factory, a popular artist hangout.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Bay Area art scene had become lively, and Bing was close to many of those artists. Her wider circle of friends, many of which were prominent Bay Area abstract painters, included Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner and Fred Martin.
Following college, Bing became involved in the San Francisco/Bay Area art scene.
In 1960, while accompanying Joan Brown to New York for the latter’s one-person show at Staempfli Gallery, she met Marcel Duchamp, an extraordinary experience for her.
In 1961, San Francisco’s Batman Gallery, an alternative Beat space with all black walls and located at 2222 Fillmore (named by poet Michael McClure and painter Bruce Conner), mounted her one-person exhibition “Paintings & Drawings by Bernice Bing," which garnered praise from critics like Alfred Frankenstein from the San Francisco Chronicle. She also showed large-scale works, including her painting “Las Meninas” (1960) based on Diego Velázquez’s Baroque court scene.
James Monte critically reviewed her shows in Artforum in 1963 and 1964. She moved to Mayacamas Vineyards, Napa Valley in 1963 for a three-year period but returned to Berkeley for her two-person exhibition at Berkeley Gallery.
In 1967, she took part in the first residential program of Esalen Institute, New Age Psychology and Philosophy at Big Sur, where she continued her interest in C.G. Jung’s symbolism, encountered Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts, and read Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics. From 1984-85, Bing traveled to Korea, Japan and China, studying traditional Chinese ink landscape painting at the Zhejiang Art Academy, Haungzhou.
In addition to art, Bing was also an activist and arts administrator. She involved herself in many programs and organizations, like the National Endowment for the Arts Expansion program (1968), the Neighborhood Arts Program (1969-1971), and the San Francisco Art Festival at the San Francisco Civic Center (early 1970s). In 1977, Bing created an art workshop with the Baby Wah Chings, a Chinatown gang, after the Golden Dragon Massacre in San Francisco.
Bing also served as the first executive director of the South of Market Cultural Center (now known as SOMArts) from 1980-1984, expanding the programming during her time there. Her work in the community was recognized by awards in 1983 and 1984.
Bing visited China from 1984-1985. There, she studied calligraphy and gave lectures on Abstract Expressionism.
In 1989, Bing's career was revitalized after meeting Moira Roth, a professor of art history at Mills College who suggested that Bing join the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA). Bing's participation in the AAWAA helped her to combine her interest with identity into her art.
She died in Philo, California in 1998 from cancer.
In her art’s bridge between East and West, Bing cited an early exposure to existential philosophy that led to her pursuit of abstraction, combined with a broad array of artistic, literary, film and musical influences characteristic of the postwar fifties: from Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, to Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Like many postwar abstractionists, she recognized the prominence of Zen Buddhism and followed author Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, Zen’s Western authority. In her later years she devoted her practice to Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th century Japanese monk Nichiren (1222–1282).
Her work Mayacamas, No. 6, March 12, 1963 is held by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. It was inspired by the Mayacamas Mountains of Northern California. The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California has a promised gift by Bing, a large oil on canvas titled, "Velázquez Family."
In 2013 a documentary film, "The World of Bernice Bing," was co-produced by the Asian American Women Artists Association and Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project ; Produced and Directed by Madeleine Lim; Co-Produced by Jennifer Banta Yoshida and T. Kebo Drew.
1990 — award from Asian Heritage Council
1996 — Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Women's Caucus for Art (first Asian-American to receive award)