At first glance, it may appear that you’re looking at a collection of abstract paintings. But after speaking to the artist, you learn that you’re looking at moments in a man’s life.

The National Gallery of Canada’s largest-ever retrospective collection of Thomas Nozkowski’s work is also the first American solo exhibition by the NGC in a decade.

Many of the 60 works in Nozkowski’s first — and so far, only — exhibition in Canada, are on loan from private collectors, NGC director Marc Mayer said Thursday.

The works themselves are “revolutionary” and “unorthodox in the history of abstraction” in that it makes references to the real world, Mayer said.

Nozkowski, who began painting in this style in the early 1970s, had his first exhibit in 1973. Since then, he’s had 70 solo shows and has exhibited in over 300 galleries.

His goal was to create paintings that embodied the things that meant something to him.

“Every painting has a source of reality,” he said.

“I’m not just making a design. It’s something that I care about, that I love or hate. And if some of that comes through, that really is everything to me.”

In one of his earliest memories, Nozkowski was walking with his father and picking apples from his grandfather’s orchard. As the pair roasted the apples on sticks, an apple popped open, exposing the white flesh. In 1995, the memory became a painting.

Although each painting is personal, he said people will have their own ideas of what they see.

“Art is about the freedom to see what you want,” he said.

Because of this, none of his paintings have a title. Each of his works is coded with a number, leaving viewers free to formulate their own interpretation.

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