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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.

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."

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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."

The art world he was discovering was surging with ideas. "I did a few talks for WBAI radio station, a private left-wing station in New York," he remembers. "For one show I interviewed Ad Reinhardt," an American minimalist known for his austere all-black paintings. "The sound engineer was a labour organizer and he was getting more and more pissed off by all our fancy art talk and these black paintings, and Reinhart's claim to be making political art. But Reinhardt said, and I remember it still: 'Advanced thinking about art is the same thing as advanced politics. It's all about advancing human freedom. How can you open things up for people? How big can you make their world?'"

Nozkowski started working small (his canvases are usually not more than 71 centimetres across), a decision he made to protect his own artistic freedom. "When you make big pictures," he says, "to improvise takes time. If you decide that a background should be a different shade of blue, it can take three days to make the change. With a small painting, you do it, and if it doesn't work you wipe it out and try something else." The canvases in the Ottawa show bear the residue of these revisions and reconsiderations, often with multiple painterly finishes in the same composition.

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With this change in scale came a shift in his working method, also politically motivated. "When I was in art school I did these big process paintings, you know where you decide to make a grid of colour and then you execute it. But after a while I thought: I am not a factory worker. And I am making these paintings for the institutions that I despise - corporations, museums, and for rich people's homes. I decided I would make paintings that would fit into the apartments of the people that I knew." As well, he abandoned the anonymity of concept-driven art. "All of us are interested in having an un-alienated life," he says. "What is the point of having a craft if you cannot use it to speak about the things that interest you outside the studio?" His art would be rooted in his own life experience.

By the time Nozkowski arrived at full artistic maturity in the 1980s, big, often bombastic figurative painting had taken centre stage, with the spotlight squarely focused on the likes of Americans Eric Fischl, David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the Europeans Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Sigmar Polke. Nozkowski's mini, painterly epiphanies were as far from such hubris as one could get.

Painting in the studio at night, he worked in the day as production manager for Mad magazine, a periodical that offered an ironic antidote to the world view of suburban, sunny-side-up America.

A chance encounter with ArtForum editor Joseph Masheck, in 1979, initiated his shift to full-time art making. "I'd had a show with an artists' co-op, and maybe 60 people saw that show, and two thirds of them were my friends," he recalls. But one third of them were strangers, and he started selling work and moving up through the gallery system to where he is today, showing with PaceWildenstein, one of the city's leading dealers. He also teaches at Rutgers University, where he makes periodic and unsuccessful attempts to retire (he is 65).

Still, though, art history is his teacher. "Watteau has been with me for the past six months in the studio," he says, "and he's driving me crazy. I can steal from everybody, but not from him." He loves Antoine Watteau's bare, stripped-down style and his silvered colours, kindred to his own idiosyncratic palette. "And, like everybody else," he adds, "I worship de Kooning. The great thing about Abstract Expressionism was that it was a movement in depth. Even when you get down to the second or third tier of artists, you are still looking at great paintings. If you get to experience a movement in full like that in your lifetime, you are lucky."

So, I ask him, what can painting do that nothing else can?

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"Oh, that's easy," he says, his voice relaxing affectionately. "There is no other tool that can unite images and emotions so efficiently, that can bring together what you see and what you feel about it. Painting is really about pursuing what you desire. I mean, we all walk down the street, but we see completely different things. Here we are, sharing DNA and two million years of evolutionary history. Why is it that you are looking over there and I'm looking over here?" Maybe painting, and the discussion around it, provides the long answer to that question.

Thomas Nozkowski continues at the National Gallery of Canada until September 20.

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