A Matter of Timing

Why was Dox Thrash ignored -- until now?

Feb 26, 2003 at 4:00 am
Come December, Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered, now on view at the St. Louis Art Museum, will easily rank as one of the city's best exhibits of 2003. And this will not happen for the expected reasons -- the exceptional quality of the art, Thrash's association with the Works Progress Administration, his rule-breaking experiments with his medium. More than your typical print show, this exhibit is a Trojan horse in the field of art history, sneaking in all kinds of thorny questions: Who was Dox Thrash? Why has he been all but ignored in histories of American art? Why is printmaking consistently (if tacitly) ranked as a lesser art medium?

Viewing Dox Thrash probably won't answer any of these questions. But it's enough that it manages to pose them. This exhibit is all the richer for leaving viewers wondering about these things and wanting to follow up and learn about the artist, his art, and his experiences as a black man struggling against odds to succeed in one of the most challenging periods in American history.

Who was Dox Thrash? He emerges partially through the images in this exhibit. He's the face in "Mr. X" (circa 1944), a small self-portrait done in Thrash's signature medium, the carborundum mezzotint, combined with etching. Thrash is the artist born at the turn of the century in rural Georgia, raised by his mother, Ophelia, whom he remembers as a strong woman, head held high, in "Sunday Morning," an etching from 1939. Thrash fought in World War I, an experience he remembers in "At the Front" (1920s), a watercolor over graphite showing soldiers standing at attention, receiving their orders.

Thrash was wounded in the war, but his service paid off greatly: As a veteran, he qualified for federal support for his education and was able to enroll full-time at the Art Institute of Chicago and complete the art studies he had begun years before. In the 1930s, Thrash benefited again from federal aid, signing on at the Fine Print Workshop in Philadelphia, which was supported by the Federal Works Agency of the WPA. Throughout his career, he supplemented his income by taking on commercial design projects.

Thrash worked constantly and, midcareer, met with some measure of success, exhibiting mainly in shows featuring African-American artists and artists associated with the WPA. Unlike a great many artists throughout history, Thrash didn't become more famous after his death (in 1965). In fact, he seemed to have completely slipped beneath the radar of art history until the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized his "rediscovery" with a major retrospective exhibit and catalog in 2001. (The SLAM exhibit is an abbreviated version of the Philadelphia retrospective; outside of St. Louis and Philadelphia, the exhibit has only traveled to Chicago's Terra Museum of American Art.)

And why is this? Why has Thrash been essentially ignored by writers of American art history? It's certainly not because his work lacks quality. His prints are small in dimension but staggering in effect. Among other things, Thrash emerges in this exhibit as an expert portraitist, able to capture the subtlest human traits in a just a few etched lines or the soft shades of an aquatint. In "Octoroon," Thrash allows the paper's texture to punctuate the thin ink wash, creating an erosion effect that heightens the female subject's tired but defiant expression. And rarely did any WPA artist succeed in celebrating American labor as well as Thrash did with "Defense Worker" (circa 1941), a tiny carborundum mezzotint that possesses a stark monumentality.

It's not necessary to compare Thrash's works to those of better known artists to stake a claim for his importance. But such comparisons are nonetheless revealing, again begging the question of Thrash's virtual erasure from art history. An etching such as "Twenty-fourth Street and Ridge Avenue" (circa 1937-39) captures the essence of living in a Depression-era American city as completely as any painting or print by Reginald Marsh. Thrash's handling of watercolor, in portraits such as "Head of a Young Man" and "Pensive Woman" (1940s-'50s), is as deft and lively as anything in the medium by Winslow Homer, whom Thrash greatly admired. "Saturday Night" (1944-45), an etching of a barefoot woman curling her hair in a tiny room, contains all the melancholy of observations by John Sloan or Ivan Albright.

Thrash's absence from the annals of art history may partly be a result of timing and the relative success of two African-American contemporaries, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Lawrence's astounding black-history paintings, on the Negro Migration and figures such as Harriet Tubman, and Bearden's joyous Harlem Renaissance paintings and photocollaged memory pieces have become fixtures in American art-history texts. Their inclusion, along with a handful of other established African-American artists, seems to satisfy the unspoken diversity quota of most books on twentieth-century American art -- at the expense of talents such as Thrash.

Another strike against Thrash: He was a printmaker. He suffers the fate of obscurity that most contemporary printmakers share. Ask almost anyone with a working knowledge of art history to name a famous printmaker, and he or she will have to think back centuries before coming up with Dürer, Rembrandt or Goya. Names of twentieth- and 21st-century printers are even more elusive unless one happens to be connected to the field.

The cause of this has to do with the historical construction of the high-art canon and is primarily economic in nature (what isn't?). But if any twentieth-century American printmaker deserves more attention, it is certainly Dox Thrash. He was clearly a talented draftsman, but what distinguishes him even more is his willingness to experiment, pushing the boundaries of his medium -- even at the risk of failure. Thrash is widely credited as the inventor of the carborundum print, which employs gritty commercial-silica crystals to treat the copper plate for printing. The carborundum allows for a number of possibilities -- it can be used to create mezzotints, relief etchings or a combination of these approaches. Thrash experimented with all of them and achieved some extraordinary results.

Thrash managed to exploit all the advantages of this new medium, reveling in the rich, velvety darks it achieves and coaxing the lights to glow from the print. The primary disadvantage of the carborundum process appears to be the risk of producing mushy, indistinct images; Thrash avoided this trap. In prints such as "Cabin Days" (1938-39) and "Cabin With a Star in the Window" (1944-45), the scenes are warmed by a golden glow and softened like long-ago memories. Thrash is adept at all the more traditional printmaking processes, but one senses that he enjoyed taking the risk, and enjoying the success, of the process he developed.

One of the most striking carborundum mezzotints in this show is Thrash's self-portrait from around 1944, the one he titled "Mr. X." His skin is velvety brown; his head, solid and strong, is lit from behind. Tiny lights dance around his face in lively animation. It's an unforgettable image. We can only hope that history doesn't forget Dox Thrash -- again.