Dox Thrash

Heartache and the American dream: Dox Thrash at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Thrash deserves to be remembered for more than just his technical inventions



Dox Thrash (1893-1965), credited with inventing the carborundum process for printmaking in 1938, was more than a technical innovator. His sensuous images of the black female nude, portrayals of African Americans as individuals instead of stereotypes and his scenes of African American life had a noticeable influence on subsequent artists.

Now, after a 40 year hiatus, his artistic achievements are recognised with a major retrospective, “Dox Thrash: An African American Printmaker Rediscovered,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until 24 February, 2001.

Thrash pursued the American dream, with its concomitant heartache. Born in a former slave’s cabin near the small town of Griffin, Georgia, he dropped out of school after fourth grade and left home at fifteen to work in vaudeville.

Three years later he became a part-time art student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Enlisting in the army in 1917, he was wounded and gassed in France on the last day of World War I. After completing art school, Thrash settled in 1926 in Philadelphia where, according to his memoirs, he wanted to “observe, draw and paint the people of America, especially the Negro.”

In 1936 Thrash was accepted into the Federal Arts Project Graphic Arts Workshop in Philadelphia as an experienced printmaker. There he discovered that carborundum crystals could be used on copperplates to make etchings with a rich chiaroscuro effect, perfect for reproducing the varying skin tones of the African American.

Thrash’s compelling imagery, combined with this rich shading, brought him national attention and numerous honours throughout the 40s and 50s. Ironically, when the US entered World War II in 1941, he applied as a veteran to work as an insignia painter at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, only to be rejected because of his race. This exhibition of more than 200 prints, drawings and paintings from public and private collections shows his mastery of the printmaking technique and the universality of subject matter.

Beginning with nostalgic images of rural Georgia, such as “Cabin Days”and “Monday Morning Wash”, through his years on the road and in Philadelphia, he opens his world to all empathetic viewers. “Saturday Night”, 1942-45, an etching, shows a young woman preparing for a night on the town. Every line captures her mood of intense anticipation tinged with desperation.

The exhibition, organised by John Ittmann, Curator of Prints at the Philadelphia Museum, will travel to the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago. It is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue raisonné of his prints.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Heartache and the American dream'