Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered


A major retrospective including some 100 prints, drawings and watercolors by Dox Thrash will document for the first time the remarkable artistic achievements of an important artist who rose to national prominence during the late 1940s. Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered will be on view in the Museum's Berman and Stieglitz Galleries from October 27, 2001 to February 24, 2002.

Dox Thrash (1893-1965) boldly confronted cultural history through his art, whether presenting a portrait of a strong individual, an unflinching image of racial violence, or a frank celebration of the female nude. His work documents the black American's evolving identity in the 1930s and 1940s, addressing contemporary issues regarding race, history, gender and modern art. (left: Harmonica Blues, c. 1937-38, etching, 5 x 4 inches, Federal Works Agency, Work Progress Administration on deposit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition demonstrates Thrash's mastery of printmaking methods. It documents the range of the artist's poetic imagery: childhood memories of the rural South (Cabin Days, about 1938); hard times in the urban North (Coal Dust, about 1937); patriotic war work (Defense Worker, about 1941); sensuous nude studies (Siesta, about 1944-48); as well as lively scenes of his community (Twenty-Fourth Street and Ridge Avenue, about 1937-39) and sensitive portraits of its residents (Mary Lou, about 1939-40).

Dox Thrash was born and raised in Griffin, Georgia, fought in France during World War I, and studied at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago between 1914 and 1923. In 1937, at the height of the Depression, Thrash joined Philadelphia's government-sponsored WPA Graphic Arts Workshop as a seasoned printmaker with a taste for experimentation. While with the WPA, Thrash discovered that gritty carborundum crystals, normally employed to remove images from lithograph stones, could also be used to roughen the surface of copper plates to make etchings. The process was quickly adopted and adapted by other members of the WPA workshop, but the compelling imagery and rich chiaroscuro of Thrash's own carborundum prints have ensured that it is his name that is most closely linked with this innovative method.

In the early 1940s, Philadelphia Museum of Art director Fiske Kimball and prints and drawings curator Carl Zigrosser took an active interest in the Workshop's efforts, acquiring some 75 prints produced by African-American artists for the WPA. Today the Museum houses some 50 works by Thrash in its Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, some of them recent acquisitions.

The exhibition catalogue is co-published by the Museum and the University of Washington Press, where it is one of the distinguished Jacob Lawrence Series on American Artists. It contains the first illustrated catalogue raisonné of Thrash's 188 known prints, two thirds of which came to light as a result of research leading to the exhibition. The publication also contains four scholarly essays: an evaluation of Thrash's work in the context of his times, by Kymberly N. Finder, Assistant Professor of Art History at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago; an account of the WPA Graphic Arts workshop in Philadelphia, by Cindy Medley-Buckner, independent scholar; an exploration of the role played by the Pyramid Club in African American cultural affairs in Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s, by David Brigham, Curator of American Art at the Worcester Art Museum; and a biography of the artist by John Ittmann. The exhibition will also be shown in September 2002 at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, the city where Thrash received his art education.

Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered is one of a series of exhibitions -- all mounted in conjunction with the Museum's 125th anniversary in 2001 -- that celebrate the remarkable contributions of artists born or based in Philadelphia.


About Dox Thrash

Dox Thrash was born to Gus and Ophelia Thrash on March 22, 1893. He was the second of four children raised in a former slave cabin on the outskirts of Griffin, Georgia, a small rural town located halfway between Atlanta and Macon. Though he quit school after only completing the fourth grade he nurtured his love of drawing through art correspondence courses. At the age of 15 he left home and began traveling around the country working at a wide variety of jobs that included performing in traveling circuses and vaudevilles.

By 1911 Thrash arrived in Chicago for the first time, where he would find work as an elevator operator and later enroll in evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914. His studies were interrupted in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. Thrash enlisted in the Army and served for fourteen months as a private in the 365th Infantry Regiment, 183rd Brigade, 92nd Division, an all-black unit later proudly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. On November 11, 1918, the final day of fighting, Thrash was gassed and wounded, and suffered from shell shock for a time. After returning to the U.S., he resumed touring in vaudeville acts before re-enrolling in evening school at the Art Institute in the fall of 1919. The next year began three years of full-time instruction at art school that included courses in graphic design as well as the fine arts. After his Chicago years, Thrash lived for a time in Boston, Connecticut, and New York City (during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance), before settling for good in Philadelphia around 1926. (left: Head of a Woman, 1940s-1950s, watercolor, 6 1/4 x 4/1/4 inches, Collection of Allan H. Nowak, Sunny Isles Beach, Florida)

The artist's earliest recorded success in Philadelphia came in the graphic design field. He created a poster for the Second Annual National Negro Music Festival, held in May 1930 at the Academy of Music. A short time later, Thrash enrolled at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Fleisher Art Memorial), in order to study printmaking with Earl Horter, acquiring the skills that were soon to win him so much favorable attention. Thrash is known to have exhibited prints for the first time in April 1933 at a branch of the YWCA on Catharine Street, where he had made his debut as an artist in Philadelphia in October 1931 with a display of oils and watercolors. At the height of the Depression, in 1937 Thrash joined Philadelphia's Fine Print Workshop, a division of the government-sponsored Federal Arts Project, the massive work relief program designed to put thousands of unemployed artists to work and to allow them to share their productions with the general public. By the end of that year he had discovered that carborundum, an abrasive used in the workshop to refurbish lithograph stones, could also be employed as a quick way to roughen the surface of a copper plate, so that it could be worked with burnishers and scrapers to create an image. Like the more labor-intensive traditional mezzotint printmaking technique that it sought to replace, the new carborundum mezzotint method was able to produce a range of rich velvety tones ranging from pale gray to deep black. Fellow WPA artists Hubert Mesibov and Michael Gallagher joined Thrash in his experiments with this and the process was quickly adopted and adapted by other members of the workshop. But the compelling imagery of Thrash's own carborundum prints has ensured that it is his name that is most closely linked with the innovative method that he would later proudly dubbed the process the "Opheliagraph," in honor of his mother, who had died in 1936.

Carborundum prints by Thrash, Gallagher, and Mesibov were shown publicly for the first time, as part of the largest exhibition to date of work produced by the Federal Art Project in Philadelphia, which opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (then called the Pennsylvania Museum) on January 23, 1938. Appreciation of Thrash's prints and drawings continued to build throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as his work was exhibited in major cities across the United States, from Boston to San Francisco. During these same years Thrash's work was shown at a number of Philadelphia venues, including the Art Alliance, Lincoln University and the Pyramid Club, a black social and cultural center founded in 1940 at 1517 West Girard Avenue.

In addition to presenting interracial art exhibitions annually from 1941 to 1957, almost every one including works by Thrash, the Pyramid Club provided the artist with a network of African American professionals with the ability to support his work. Prominent early members included Hobson Reynolds, attorneys John Francis Williams and Lewis Tanner Moore, judge Joseph Rainey, YMCA executive Herbert T. Miller, and physician Wilbur Strickland. The First Annual Exhibition of Art, held March 2-16, 1941, displayed the work of local black artists like Thrash, and former WPA colleagues Claude Clark, Raymond Steth, and Samuel Brown. In subsequent years, exhibitions at the club highlighted the work of a single black artist each year, featuring such well-known figures as Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, Paul Keene, Jacob Lawrence, and James A. Porter. The thriving club also was home to a wide range of scholarly lectures, fashion shows, society weddings and cultural events. Honored by members of the club were celebrities like writer Langston Hughes, jazz great Duke Ellington and NAACP executive secretary Walter Francis White.

In the early 1940s Thrash was becoming nationally known for subjects ranging from Georgia shanties (Cabin Days) and Philadelphia row houses (Newscorner) to moody character studies (Second Thought) and female nudes (Siesta). In February 1941, Pennsylvania's Art Project was the first state program to be asked by Washington to help with the defense effort. Thrash responded with a series of patriotic subjects such as Defense Worker, Grinder and Shipfitters. By the end of the year creative work of this sort began to cease, and FAP artists like Thrash turned to the thriving Civil Defense sector for work. Thrash, however, was turned away when he applied for a job as an insignia painter in the airplane department of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. "I was informed that this job was not available for members of my race," he wrote in a carefully worded letter to the Fair Employment Practice Committee. Undaunted after a five-month investigation that furnished no results, Thrash found work with the Sun Ship Company in Chester, Pa. Here he would remain until the close of the war in 1945, after which he obtained a job as a house painter with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

For the next two decades, Thrash remained was a familiar figure in Philadelphia art circles, participating in exhibitions and workshops at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Print Club of Philadelphia (now the Print Center) and, until it closed in 1963, the Pyramid Club. He died in April 1965, and is buried in the United States National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J. Since his death, his works have been avidly collected by connoisseurs and museums, where his prints have stood out whenever they have been featured within larger exhibitions. This exhibition and its catalogue, Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered, represent the first occasion that the career of this remarkable artist has been the subject of an in-depth study and that his accomplishments as a printmaker have been fully examined.

Text and images courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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