FOR the painter Jackson Pollock, for the New York art community, and for American society as a whole, the 1940s were a decade of transition. At long last the Depression was over. Even in the midst of a world war there was time to think about new beginning in art as well as politics. The painting reproduced on this page was a pivotal work in Jackson Pollock's career. It is both figurative and abstract. The figurative elements look back to the 1930s, when figuration dominated American painting, while the abstract elements look forward to the period from 1947 to 1950, when Pollock did the so-called ``drip paintings'' that made him famous.
Ambiguous as they are, the most obviously figurative elements are the two guardians, at left and right, and the dog, at bottom. But the abstract calligraphy in the center includes what may well be suggestions of human or animal anatomy. In this respect Pollock's work had much in common with that of another New York artist, Arshile Gorky, and above all with that of Picasso, whom both Gorky and Pollock admired.
Pollock eventually became famous as America's leading abstract artist. He was either admired or despised for the paintings he made by pouring or dripping paint on a horizontal canvas. But he began his career as a conservative and even reactionary artist. During the early 1930s he studied with Thomas Hart Benton, who painted the American scene in a realistic style and spoke out against avant-garde art.
Later in the same decade Pollock came under the influence of the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jos'e Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their political views were to the left of Benton's, but they joined him in repudiating the artistic innovations of the 20th century.
During the 1930s many of the most successful American artists were little more than illustrators. Not only did the Works Progress Administration build schools and post offices, but also it paid artists to decorate them. For the first and last time in the history of the United States, being an artist seemed to be a job like any other.
The occupation of Paris in 1940 and the flight of intellectuals from Europe to the US meant that New York became the cultural capital of the Western world. Responding to this new situation, a few ambitious Americans set out to show that America was mature enough to produce art for art's sake, as Europe had been doing for years.
Artists who later painted abstractly went through a period in which they were preoccupied with ancient myth and ritual. Their use of material from exotic or archaic sources was intended to put some distance between them and the everyday reality of America.
A statement by the painters Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, published in 1943, might have spoken equally well for Jackson Pollock: ``Since art is timeless, the significant rendition of a symbol, no matter how archaic, has as full validity today as the archaic symbol had then. Or is the one 3,000 years old truer?''
For artists who painted only what they saw in the streets, the '30s and '40s were a discouraging time. Jackson Pollock and his fellow pioneers tried to create a new kind of high art. Although their reference to ancient myths and primitive ritual owed something to the Surrealist movement, it was transformed by American optimism. In 1943 Pollock and his friends could hope that a purer and more spiritual art would reflect their yearning for a purer and more spiritual society.
``Guardians of the Secret'' is in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view through August 1987.