Arthur B. Carles, the Philadelphia painter, was born in 1882. If art history were linear, we'd know just where to put him. We'd follow the coordinates to the cubbyhole marked "Carles."

We'd begin in 1910 at the Pennsylvania Academy, where Carles studied with Thomas Anshutz, a pupil of Thomas Eakins. Then Carles went to Paris where he met Matisse, and Leo and Gertrude Stein. In 1910, on the advice of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz showed Carles' pictures at "291." Carles knew Alfy Maurer, too, and John Marin, Marsden Hartley - and with every famous figure cited, his coordinates lock in.

Or would if art were not so messy. The paintings in "The Arthur B. Carles Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden," which will be on view there through Oct. 9, do not fit his cubbyhole. Before his eerie paintings, linearities dissolve.

Though trained in the academy, though shown the new in Paris, Carles did not take the stepping stones - cubism, surrealism - that the textbooks tell us led to abstract art. Instead he doubled back, changed his mind, explored. His "Reclining Nude" of 1931-1935 is more familiar, more traditional, than the faceless seated nude he painted a dozen years before.

Older men, it's true, sometimes grow conservative, but Carles had not abandoned interest in the new. The "Last Painting" that he worked on between 1936 and 1941 (when he was paralyzed by a fall) is the one abstraction in the Hirshhorn show.

"When an artist makes light and shade, he spoils color. Paint lies flat," said Carles. He wasn't mouthing '60s dogma. The quote is from 1913. Carles was equally at home with the timeless and the new. His subjects were traditional - the landscape, the still life and, particularly, the nude - but his painting wasn't. He learned much from the Fauves, his colors are amazing and the year he pained pictures for his avant garde Stieglitz show he went from France to Venice to make a copy of a Raphael for a Philadelphia church.

Carles might now be remembered as an abstract expressionist had he lived a little longer, but he needs no labels. If he was not a master, neither was he a follower. He did things his own way.