Philip Guston is often cast as an apostate of abstract expressionism—the guy who committed professional suicide by abandoning pure painterly color for crude pictograms of shoes, one-eyed lima bean–shaped heads, and klansmen’s hoods. Guston joined the first wave of abstract expressionism around 1950, following his onetime roommate Jackson Pollock. In typical Guston canvases from the period, layered short strokes of paint formed gauzy clouds of color, which emerged from fields of white. Guston certainly seemed committed to the idea of artistic purity: When Sidney Janis began showing young Pop artists in 1962, Guston protested alongside ab-exers like Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb by severing ties with the gallery.

But then, in 1967, 10 years after Pollock’s death, Guston seemed to switch sides. Out went Piet Mondrian; in came Krazy Kat. Guston’s 1970 show of new cartoonish figurative work at Marlborough Gallery was savaged by The New York Times’ Hilton Kramer, who wrote: “…in offering us his new style of cartoon anecdotage, Mr. Guston is appealing to a taste for something funky, clumsy and demotic. We are asked to take seriously his new persona as an urban primitive, and this is asking too much.” Kramer didn’t seem interested that Guston had painted figurative murals for a couple of decades before working in abstraction, and he made no connections between the new work and the old. Instead, Guston was cast as jumping on some sort of Pop/new realism/art brut bandwagon.

“Philip Guston: Roma,” the exhibition currently on view at the Phillips Collection, shows us Guston in the aftermath of that Marlborough show, licking his wounds. At a moment in which he’d been excoriated by the press and was on the verge of being dropped by his own gallery, Guston seized a chance to get out of town for a while. From October 1970 to May 1971, the artist and his wife Musa McKim lived at the American Academy in Rome, where Guston attempted to regain his bearings. After weeks of no painting, he began filling his Roman studio with a flurry of small pinkish-hued works on paper, panel, and canvas. Gathered here, they offer a fascinating window onto the central problems of Guston’s practice—and not just because of the brief period of concentrated activity they represent, at a critical moment in the artist’s career

Curator Peter Benson Miller attempts to parse Guston’s output from this time, finding not only descriptions of Rome’s architecture, gardens, and ruins, but also references to a long line of Italian painters, from Piero della Francesca in the 15th century to Giorgio de Chirico in the 20th. Ultimately, Guston’s Rome paintings tell us what he’d been so sorely missing during the period in which he worked as an abstract painter: pictorial space, historical ties, and a feeling of mattering, of addressing life in the artist’s present moment.

One might assume the space Guston defined in his pictures was akin only to the mechanically reproduced flatness of the funny pages. But Guston’s cartoonish late paintings bear little resemblance to, say, the slick reproductions of consumer-culture detritus offered by Pop artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Instead of slickness, Guston created scruffy, crudely brushed images; instead of flatness, he offered layered images showing the artist’s thought process throughout the act of creating.

Guston’s paintings are paintings first and foremost; every misstep, eradication, and revision is preserved, almost fetishized. Take “Rome Garden” (1971), for example: A large, loosely brushed tree rendered in black and gray looms in the center of the picture, hovering tentatively on the slight incline of a red horizon line, and bumping awkwardly against the top of the roughly 20-by-28-inches sheet of paper. The tree appears like a lumpy triangle supported by a long, thin stick. Lurking underneath the gray strokes that make up the tree’s canopy are the remnants of what was once a red brick wall. Where the thin lower part of the tree’s trunk only partly covers it, the wall has been rubbed out by vigorous opaque strokes of pinkish white, which hug the contours of the tree-and-horizon line. Guston’s brush picked up the still-wet paint of both the red wall and the black tree, leaving smudges and ghosts. Guston may not have been an abstract expressionist anymore, but his canvas was still an “arena in which to act”—the definition that critic Harold Rosenberg famously applied to the ab-exers’ methods in 1952. Guston painted in a direct, plainspoken manner, preserving each broad, simple gesture with the brush as if it corresponded directly to an underlying thought worth retaining and conveying.

Guston’s images of gardens not only reflect the Italian tradition of ars toparia—trimming plants into cubes, cones, and other simple geometric forms—but also the distinctive sense of space seen throughout the history of Italian painting. It’s easy to look at the processions of cylindrical shrubs, umbrella trees, and small round stones in “Farnesina Garden Rome” (1971) and recall the shallow set-like spaces in which Giotto depicted the life of Christ in the early 14th century. Guston and his wife visited Giotto’s Arena Chapel chapel early in their stay and were deeply moved.

Views of towns from a distance, emerging organically from masses of orange or pinkish-hued rock—as in “Untitled (Hill Town)” (1971) or “Cerveteri” (1971-72)—carry the same dioramic sense, of buildings described in miniature in a constructed, constrained space. Renaissance artists ignored a lot about the way humans really see: Our vision is disjunctive, stereoscopic, incomplete, and distorted. The space of Italian paintings is harmonious, linear, mathematical. Giotto’s frescos are abstractions, not equivalent with the mechanics of human perception at all, just the ideas of things, and Guston’s art seems oddly in keeping with this way of thinking about space.

It’s often noted how much Guston admired a much later Italian classicist: Giorgio de Chirico, who also had a late-career shift in direction and alienated plenty of patrons in the process. De Chirico’s 1925 painting “The Poet and His Muse,” is usually mentioned—in it, faceless mannequins are crammed into a claustrophobic, smoky interior with bare walls and floorboards. Many of Guston’s later paintings unfold in exactly this space—except instead of mannequins, we see liquor bottles, disembodied hands with cigarettes, and the occasional languishing cyclops.

But the “Roma” paintings recall another Italian modernist all the more strongly: Giorgio Morandi. Paintings like “Ostia-Roma” (1971) show a series of garden objects in a horizontal row, each squeezing the next, competing for pictorial real estate. The awkward pressures exerted by these objects on one another mirror the relationships between bottles and pitchers in works by Morandi, who really only ever painted one kind of painting: a still life on a shallow table. The table was typically indicated only by a horizontal line to mark where tabletop stopped and bare wall began; the objects Morandi used were vessels, often painted white, and placed in tight horizontal rows. Guston’s gardens follow the same logic.

There was something ineffable about the lived human experience Morandi captured. Rather than imposing a master plan on the universe, he reduced his world to only a few elements that could be manipulated completely. Similarly, Guston reduced the world to a series of hoods, hands, shoes, and floating cigarettes, all recurring in conversation from one canvas to the next.

That those elements seem to populate a world of Roman gardens and ruins results in an odd equivalency. The vertical stack of bricks in “Untitled (Wall)” (1971) immediately resemble the pile of shoes in a later piece not on view here, “Rug” (1976). “Rug” shows a cluster of pipe-skinny legs attached to big, clunky shoes, all turned to show us their soles. This image and others like it are often linked to Guston’s encounters with images of the holocaust, of stacks of emaciated bodies in concentration camps. Seen this way, Guston’s bricks-as-shoes are an echo of the horrors of World War II visible in the landscape.

In the 1920s, as a young boy, Guston was terrified by a Ku Klux Klan parade in Los Angeles. He joined a Marxist group in 1931, and was making anti-Fascist murals around 1935; some of these included references to scheming evil Klansmen. That the hoods returned to his art by the end of the ’60s should perhaps not have been surprising: Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. Hoods represented secretive figures, scheming violent acts.

But that they dotted the landscape in his Rome paintings might seem strange. In Italy, however, hoods meant other things as well: From the cowled visage of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, and commemorated in bronze in the Campo dei Fiori, to penitents in hoods honoring Christian martyrs in the Coliseum in the 19th century, Guston didn’t have to stretch his imagination to see the iconic forms that obsessed him back home.

Rome conformed to the way Guston saw art history generally: Fragments of ruins dotted a landscape that has been subject to upheavals, repurposing, and strange juxtapositions. One need look no further than the broken marble foot of Serapis—a pagan god’s foot carted off by Christian powers which sat outside the shop where Guston bought art supplies. Once part of the likeness of a god, this fragment was transformed into mere decoration, and only hinted at its former life and grandeur. This foot is precisely the sort of ominous disembodied fragment Guston relied on; not surprisingly, it made its way into a number of the Rome paintings.

The physical structure of Rome seemed to offer an irresistible metaphor for Guston’s own career and development, for his relationship to the flow of events and artistic influences. Arguably, by breaking out of abstraction, Guston opted to become a more fully self-aware artist, following flexible ad hoc methods unlike the academic ones so many ab-exers followed. In his Rome pictures, Guston may have been at a moment of crisis, but in the work he made at that moment, he gave later generations of artists the courage to resist totalizing explanations, and to pick and choose their own ancestors as needed. Contemporary art has been messier—and richer—for it.