“Water Is Wide” by William Manning
“Water Is Wide” by William Manning
Once, at a Boston jazz club, I heard the great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon field a question from the audience: “What are you thinking, Dexter, just before you play one of your solos?” Gordon paused a quick moment. “What do I think?” he said, “Well, I think … ‘Here goes!’”

William Manning said the same refreshing thing about his painting in a conversation last week. “It’s difficult to explain fully,” he said, “but I never do a preliminary drawing for any work. I have nothing in mind but painting. That’s how it starts, and I just go with it.”

For over 65 years, Manning has been going with it, always making uncompromisingly original art with this operating principle. Lewiston-born in 1936, he started painting as a youth and still works around five hours a day in the studio. A dedicated professional whose art has always had real zing, he has created a body of work that reveals the staying power of that mantra, “Here goes!”

Manning started his formal art studies in 1954 at the Portland School of Art, then an offshoot of the Portland Museum, and now Maine College of Art. The state of Maine used to provide a full college scholarship to any disabled Maine resident, and Manning qualified, having contracted polio as a child. During early, lonely years when he was in a hospital far from his family, a cousin’s gift of a large set of colored inks introduced him to painting and awakened his interest in art.

In a fifth year of art study, he also began a 10-year teaching career, but he says, “My real art education only began after graduation and a six-month visit to New York.” He discovered that his Maine instructors had never shown students the major modern art movements — Cubism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism. “I was literally shocked,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, what is this?’ Suddenly, I wanted to paint what I felt more than what I actually saw.”

Back at the Portland School, developing his painting and his teaching over 10 years, he received national grants, residencies, and press attention. Finally, though, his focus on abstraction and freedom of expression conflicted too much with the restrictive educational system of the art school and museum at the time. “We were called ‘radicals,’ We were fired; the museum director and staff resigned. All that was left was the janitor!”

A trip to Mexico’s high plateaus sharpened his response to strong, bright blues, sunrises and sunsets, and a MacDowell Fellowship gave him months of uninterrupted painting time to work out new ideas. In a 2017 video interview, Manning says, “Unfortunately, we have to talk about painting, when it’s not a verbal means of communication. Things happen in painting, but I can’t tell you why they’re there. You think you’re going for a certain color, and then you find you’ve mixed another, and pretty soon you realize that the painting dictates what it wants you to do.”

In our conversation last week, Manning gave a significant example: “One day in the ’80s, when I was working on huge 2D paintings, I accidentally discovered that painting could be 3D. I had cut a frame with a wooden miter box, placed the box on its end nearby, and forgotten about it. When I next looked, I realized that the three boards created the actual visual experience of our viewpoints constantly shifting through space. So in painting all the surfaces, I got that sense of motion and color, and I proceeded to make only these 3D paintings for the next 25 years.” The current exhibit contains 13 such paintings, made between 2010 and 2017, and 11 large, two-dimensional works from 2004 and 2005.

The title of the show, “Water Is Wide,” specifically refers to a large 2D series inspired by Monhegan Island, Manning’s two-month retreat for over 45 years. Each painting occurs within a large, square format, with the powerful geometry representing humanity’s conceptual capacity. He develops endless variations on the square in luminous, sharp-edged bands of adjacent and complementary colors and textures. Top and bottom become sky and sea; the colors create exciting spatial anomalies along with visual, and even physical, effects on the viewer.

In every painting, water and atmosphere emerge through collaged brushstrokes of enormous energy and variety, torn from many paintings on paper that the artist always made preceding his annual pilgrimage. The rough paper edges harmonize with the energy of the expressionist brushstrokes, and their dynamic placement within the uncompromising geometry accentuates the feeling of crashing waves, the ocean’s speed and stillness, fog on the headlands, even the human energy of families — truly the way things feel, more than how they appear.

“In Maine,” Manning says, “I have the independence to paint what I want to paint, not what others may want. In really looking, a painting becomes a mirror in which you can learn a lot about yourself as well as about the artist.”

“Water Is Wide” is on view through September 22 at Yvette Torres Fine Art, 464 Main Street, Rockland.