New York

William Dole

Staempfli Gallery

Collage is a medium capable of incorporating elements of drawings, prints, photographs, and paintings, and as such it is probably the most enigmatic and elusive means of expression in 20th-century art. The technique offers endless formal and thematic possibilities, and it is a demanding discipline which tests both an artist’s imagination and his or her powers of communication. Still, many collages today are only pleasant to look at or only interesting to think about. Rare are the examples that move us intellectually and emotionally in the way that good drawings, prints, photographs, and paintings can.

William Dole’s collages here, however, are both provocative and powerful. This retrospective featured a selection of works dating from the early ’60s through the early ’80s. For Dole, who died in 1983 at the age of 65, collage afforded a means to speak in quiet but confident, and wondrously sensual, terms about the urge for structure, both as a universal human impulse and as a peculiarly modern need in the never-ending flood of information and material stimulation enveloping contemporary society. His collages are supremely rational creations without being overcalculated or overprecise. Although he adheres mainly to rectilinear shapes and relationships, Dole likes soft, irregular edges and textures, and that softness creates a sentient energy which ripples through each surface, binding the disparate collage elements into an integrated and emphatically pictorial statement.

Everything from railway or bus tickets to maps, scientific diagrams, and Renaissance typography is fair game for these collages. Words and letters are major motifs, and turn up in nearly all the works; Dole seems interested in them for both their visual and their literary and symbolic aspects. In some examples—Adage, 1968, for instance—individual collage elements are placed so that a sentence seems to result: “A is C.” But the real message lies not in this sentence alone but in the total context in which it is presented, a multiple-part structure broken up into different-colored bars and rectangles. Above this section is a collaged phrase in Latin; its presence underscores the magical qualities of the collage, which is not only there before us in the assertive, phenomenological sense, but seems in the process of becoming.

This suggestion of process is important, for at the source of the pictorial appeal of these works is a curiously transformative dimension, an appealingly tentative quality. In Brazen Image, 1982, tightly packed collage pieces seem to push and pull in place, animating the shallow, many-layered surface to give the impression of a newly emergent structure. Dole’s talents as a colorist are also displayed in this piece: his subtle variations and alternations of browns, yellows, and oranges create brilliant passages which heighten the impact of the words arranged in bulletinlike strips or headlines. Dole’s work finally offers a profound experience of the synthetic in its relationship to space, time, and order, and a perceptive critical commentary on Western civilization’s hierarchy of associative values.

Ronny Cohen