Too many abstract pictures swagger on the wall, strut their newness, blare. But William Dole's collages, now on exhibit at the Phillips Collection here, are not like that at all. These are modest objects; their manners are exquisite. They call to mind an age more gracious than our own.
Dole, now 62, has lived for many years in southern California, but its glare, its restless flashiness has not touched his art. He seems instead to be a patient Old World scholar. One imagines him at work in some antique scriptorium sorrounded by a clutter of ancient maps, manuscripts and illustrated tomes.
In the 1930s, when Dole still a young man, he met Gertrude Stein, Auden, Moholy-Nagy, George Rickey and other pioneers. All his small collages, with their rhythmic color fields and their hard-edge grids, acknowledge modern art's conventions. Their images are up-to-date, but their materials aren't.
Dole's pictures are assembled from fragments of the past: bits of handmade paper; words cut form old volumes; signatures, long faded, scrawled by men long dead. Words in Greek and Latin, German and Italian are sprinkled on his pictures. There is about his art a mood of aristocratic musing. The pages set in Gothic type, the Oriental colligraphies, and 18th-century diagrams and marbleized papers that he cuts up for his pictures all lend to his collages something nicely dusty, learned and antique.
Seen from a few yards away, Dole's pictures seem more than half familiar. "Second Ceremonial" (1978), with its two red vertical bands set on a gray field, seems another small stripe painting; his "Ruddy" of 1963, with its small "floating squares," pays unembarrassed homage to the paintings of Hans Hofmann. It is not until the viewer comes closer that its subtleties appear. Those bands of red are made not of one red, but of dozens. Old ticket stubs, gold leaf and words in many languages give to these small pictures a complexity, a wryness, a mood of erudition that belongs less to the scale of the wall than to that of the page.
The Phillips show, a traveling exhibition organized by Gerald Nordland, director of the Milwaukee Art Center, is a 20-year retrospective, but the oldest works on view are much like the newest. Dole likes modest jokes -- the phrases "choice and fine" and "an artistic cutter" appear in his pictures -- but though he shows us abstract art he seems to be an artist not interested in shock, innovation, progress. In 20 years his modest and poetic style has remained decorous and gracious. The exhibit closes Aug. 26. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, William Dole's "Dossier"