Works by William Manning at the Mayo Street Arts Pop-Up Gallery on Washington Avenue in Portland. (Courtesy MSA)
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While it sometimes seems as though the current Portland art scene is a young person’s domain – an incubator for emerging artists and experimental art in cooperative galleries and alternative spaces – the best show this late winter has featured a pair of artists in their 80s selected by a gallerist also in her 80s. 

William Manning and Noriko Sakanishi are Maine art elders, part of a generation that blossomed in the 1960s. June Fitzpatrick selected Manning and Sakanishi for a two-artist exhibition at the Mayo Street Arts Pop-Up Gallery (through March 20) in Portland. The pairing was inspired and art exquisite.

William Manning’s “Painting #1032,” acrylic on hardboard, at the Mayo Street Arts Pop-Up Gallery through March 20. (Courtesy MSA)

Manning taught at the Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art) in the 1960s and, having been fired by PSA over philosophical differences, founded the Concept School of Visual Studies, where he taught until 1973. He was one of, if not the first local artist to work in a purely abstract mode and, in 1962, was one of, if not the first local artist to be shown at the Portland Museum of Art. 

Manning’s former students include Katherine Bradford, Maury Colton, Alice Spencer, Don Voisine, and Sakanishi, who came to Portland from Japan in 1964 and never left.

She studied at Westbrook Junior College (now the University of New England) with Ted Perry and at Portland School of Art with Polly Brown, Norman Therrien, and Manning. In 1970, she co-founded The Opening, perhaps Portland’s first cooperative gallery.

Fifty years on, both Manning and Sakanishi are producing fine art at the top of their games with undiminished powers. The way the two pillars of the Portland art scene complement each another is that Manning creates naturalistic abstractions while Sakanishi constructs architectural abstractions. 

Manning is a tough-minded individualist who for many years found inspiration in annual trips to Monhegan.  

“I am a very representational artist, but I’m involved with the history of art,” he told me several years ago, insisting that artists who render illusions of three-dimensional realities in two dimensions are the real abstract artists. “Monhegan is one-fourth of what I do. The rest is 125 years of art from Cubism to collage to Abstract Expressionism. I’m trying to combine the organic with man-made forms.” 

The Mayo Street Arts show features a small selection of large oils from the 1960s and a much larger selection of 21st century acrylics. They all strike a balance between a response to the forces of the natural world (light, tide, wind, color, form, and texture) and the history of painting, between things seen and the act of painting.

“A Half and Plus,” acrylic, by Noriko Sakanishi, at Mayo Street Arts Pop-Up Gallery. (Courtesy MSA)

Sakanishi creates elegant three-dimensional wall paintings that are not as heavy as they look. They look as though they might be made of concrete but they are in fact painted on foam. Her palette runs from the cosmetic to the metallic and is everywhere animated by the interplay of light and shadow. 

Manning could have been talking about Sakanishi’s work as well as his own, when he said, “All painting comes out of a reality of some sort. It’s wrong to think that abstract painting has no roots or connection to the environment. Good painting is international, but it also has its roots.”

Manning and Sakanishi have deep roots both in Maine and in Modernism. Their Mayo Street Arts Pop-Up show is a blossoming from those roots.

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978.

Mayo Street Arts Pop-Up Gallery, 67 Washington Ave., Portland, mayostreetarts.org.