“Gray and Yellow River” by Wolf Kahn (1994)

While this lovely work sturdily stands on its own, it is much more than a single painting. Wolf Kahn has sketched and painted this scene on the Connecticut River at least 30 times, perhaps more. Taken together, I have come to see the series as Rothko-like experiments in what can be achieved with proximate fields of color. Here Kahn works with gray, yellow and aubergine, but in other versions he teases the possibilities out of a variety of seemingly simple color combinations. The point is, they are not simple at all.

In Yellow and Gray River the sky weighs heavily upon the horizon, interrupted by a thin strip of white, and then is met by a surprising flame yellow tree-line before it is finally allowed to drain into the metallic river of the bottom foreground. Meanwhile, the vivd yellow arrow of trees mysteriously disappear behind a smoky purple, tangled mass to the left. Thus, with a minimum of lines and colors, Kahn establish an enormous push and pull both horizontally and vertically. In other versions of this scene, he moves the lines only slightly but utterly changes the dynamics through his expert manipulation of the color fields. What a great magic trick!

I made my own version of this painting to learn how it’s done. Without changing the lines and using entirely different colors, I learned that one could move the basic masses in the viewer’s eye by changing the placement and intensity of complementary colors in the primaries of each field. The possibilities are endless and I had a blast for several months while working through a handful of them. Kahn has been experimenting with these dynamics for a lifetime and is a true master.