Guston's transformation left the roots of his art intact

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During the years just after 1945, exhausted Paris was eclipsed as the capital of modern art by wealthy and energetic New York. The so-called New York School of abstract painting, led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, promised a future in which the fine arts would become ever purer, uncontaminated by explicit reference to everyday life or struggle.

Pollock's high school classmate Philip Guston was one of the purest of New York's abstract artists. His paintings of the 1950s were far smaller and less assertive than Pollock's. Exquisite and almost monochromatic, they had the virtues of Chinese calligraphy.

Like his colleagues, Guston had done figurative painting during the 1930s and 1940s. In "Martial Memory" (shown at left), five boys occupy the foreground. One has a helmet-like teakettle on his head; another holds a garbage-can lid like a shield. Two boys hold wooden swords. There is no actual fighting going on, but the boys' figures look back to a long artistic tradition of depicting soldiers.

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The row of brick buildings in the background are at once American vernacular architecture and a nod to the ever-present arcades of Italian Renaissance painting. In 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the theme of potential violence could hardly have been more timely.

During the late 1960s, affected by news of the war in Vietnam and political conflict in America, Guston stopped exhibiting and in 1970 reappeared as a radically transformed artist. The paintings he exhibited from then until his death 10 years later seemed to wallow in embarrassing subject matter: hooded figures representing the Ku Klux Klan, old shoes, a painter in his studio wearing a Klansman's hood, all in a style closer to Krazy Kat or Mutt and Jeff than to his previous refinement.

Many younger artists admire Guston for adopting a new artistic persona that brought together irony, strong emotion, and references to both politics and private life.

But Guston himself, the least simple of artists, never gave up his love of the European old masters and his underlying sweetness. An almost childlike still life of cherries (above) looks back to a plateful of strawberries exquisitely painted by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

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