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This 2003 untitled painting is part of the National Gallery of Canada’s retrospective of Thomas Nozkowski. To examine one of his works is to examine the archive of your own imagination.
This 2003 untitled painting is part of the National Gallery of Canada’s retrospective of Thomas Nozkowski. To examine one of his works is to examine the archive of your own imagination.

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If the American artist Thomas Nozkowski had a theme song, it would probably be Forever Young . Walking through his current retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada - his biggest exhibition to date, curated by NGC director Marc Mayer - one can't help but be swept up in the buoyancy of Nozkowski's vision, moments of lived experience that he has run through the mill of his imagination and reconstituted on canvas with remarkably consistent effect over the course of his more than 30-year career. It's not possible to talk of a signature style when it comes to Nozkowski, a painter's painter who has long been a sleeper in the New York art world; each painting seems like a completely distinct imaginative universe, with its own optical characteristics. But Nozowski does have a signature mood: rambunctious, optimistic, just plain friendly.

In this, he expresses a quintessential Americanness. Tomma Abts, the German painter of similarly scaled abstractions, makes rigorous little pictures that emanate - through their precision rendering - a kind of emotional constraint. These are gemstones hardened in the tragedies of Europe's near history. Nozkowski's paintings are just the opposite. His pictures are open to the viewer, carrying within them echoes of Walt Disney and Popeye the Sailorman (lots of curves and bounce) as well as the painterly memories of American modernists Milton Avery and Marsden Hartley.

The pleasures they afford seem simple, but they're far from simplistic. "If there is to be any point to people looking at these paintings in the future," Nozkowski said to me on the phone from his studio in High Falls, N.Y., "it will be because of how complicated I can make the problem of seeing, how richly I can imagine the problem of connecting abstract forms and colour with the things I experience in the real world."

One of his paintings in the show, from 1998, arose from his visit to R.M. Schindler's landmark 1924 King's Road residence in West Hollywood, California, a modernist masterpiece which Nozkowski transubstantiated into a composition of coloured horizontal slabs bedded down in a dynamic vortex of ochre curves. Another crimson-and-white jagged abstraction from 1995 recalls a childhood episode involving a crushed apple, a visual memory that stuck to him like a burr.

Asked about the 2008 painting that the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal bought last year - depicting a folded banner of vibrantly coloured sections, aloft against a hot-pink background - the artist demures. "You wouldn't be far off if you thought of Venice and the paintings of Vittore Carpaccio," he says. (For the record, I suspect Carpaccio's The Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims , from 1495, a signature work from Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia that features a number of curling and unfurling banners.)

Nozkowski is wary, however, about tipping his hand; providing the decoder ring tends to reduce the scope of our imaginative flight. Not knowing means you bring your own story. Thus it is that an abstraction of turquoise, black and white, from 1987, sets me in mind of bottlenose dolphins (there's a little snout shape at one side of the composition), while an upthrusting pink, stump-like form, set against a horizon line, in his painting from 2007, summons marine biology and the volumetric modelling of Giorgio de Chirico. I had initially thought his Carpaccio reference was to shaved beef; that's what I saw first in the bloody reds and flushed persimmons. Examine a Nozkowski and what you end up examining is the archive of your own imagination.

The artist's own story has as many curves and tight corners as his compositions. His early years were divided between Dumont, N.J. (where he flourished under the influence of two spinster aunts, who lavished art supplies on him) and his grandfather's dairy farm in Orange County, N.Y. His evident talent, and the mentoring of his high-school teacher, an Abstract Expressionist painter named John Pappas, led to a scholarship to Cooper Union in New York City. (He graduated in 1967.) "Otherwise, I would never have gone to college," Nozkowski recalls. "We were very poor."

By the mid-1960s, Abstract Expressionism was waning, and Pop art, conceptual art and minimalism were on the rise. Nozkowski was lucky enough to find himself a ring-side seat, working at Betty Parsons Gallery by day, and attending evening gatherings in the home of a German-born sculptor named Ruth Vollmer. "It was kind of a salon," he remembers, describing her apartment on Central Park West. "There were paintings by Paul Klee and Joan Miro," artists whose spirits haunt his pictures to this day. "Ruth's apartment was the first place that I saw [Robert]Ryman's work," he adds, referring to the great American minimalist. "There were these 18-inch-square pieces of cotton with paint on them just taped to the wall. I'd never seen anything like it."

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