Arts and Entertainment

'Dox Thrash, Black Life, and the Carborundum Mezzotint' opens at the Palmer

Dox ThrashCabin with a Star in the Window, c. 1944–45, carborundum mezzotint, proof reworked in ink. Private collection, image courtesy of Dolan/Maxwell. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "Dox Thrash, Black Life, and the Carborundum Mezzotint," a new exhibition opening Jan. 16 at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State, showcases the works of American printmaking pioneering Dox Thrash and his carborundum mezzotint printmaking process.

This remarkable exhibition brings together 47 works on loan from public and private collections that reveal the experimental printmaking process, known as the carborundum mezzotint, pioneered by Thrash (1893-1965), a Philadelphia-based artist who was a noted participant in the New Negro movement of the 1930s and '40s.

“This exhibition sheds important light one of the great figures in the history of American printmaking, and how he used the carborundum mezzotint process, along with other media, to chronicle aspects of the African-American experience well before the dawn of the Civil Rights era,” said Erin Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art.   

A veteran of World War I as well as the minstrel stage, Thrash trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before making his way to Philadelphia, where he ultimately forged a career as both a painter and a graphic artist.

In 1937, Thrash signed on for employment with the Federal Art Project’s Fine Print Workshop. There, while working with fellow artists Hugh Mesibov and Michael Gallagher, he began to experiment with a new approach to printmaking, which today is known as the carborundum mezzotint process. By thoroughly abrading a plate with particles of carborundum, or silicon carbide, the artists created a design on its surface by burnishing and scraping. When inked and printed, the plate yielded an image that was remarkably rich in darks and lights. With its broad tonal range, the new process was ideally suited to the sensitive portrayals of black life for which Thrash would become known.

"Thrash has long been recognized as an innovative printmaker,” said Joyce Robinson, Palmer Museum curator, “but it’s important to note that his subject matter, drawn deep from within African-American culture, played a key role in his artistic output.”

The exhibition, on display through May 20, brings together numerous examples of the experimental process by Thrash and other colleagues working in the Fine Print Workshop. It also features works by Thrash in other print mediums, as well as watercolors and drawings, all of which powerfully document the artist’s intimate, invested engagement with African-American culture in the 1930s and 1940s.  

The exhibition was organized by Patrick McGrady, Palmer Museum of Art Charles V. Hallman Curator, with Dolan/Maxwell of Philadelphia.

“The exhibition celebrates the many artistic achievements of Dox Thrash, an important but still underappreciated African-American artist,” McGrady said. “The show concentrates on Thrash’s role in the development of the carborundum mezzotint, a new printmaking technique that brought him national recognition in the years leading up to the Second World War.”

Also on view at the Palmer Museum of Art this spring are "Pop at the Palmer," Jan. 9 through May 13; and "Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials," Feb. 13 through June 17.

For more information on the Palmer Museum and a calendar of upcoming events, visit

Exhibition-related events

Gallery Talk: Patrick McGrady, Charles V. Hallman Curator, "Dox Thrash, Black Life, and the Carborundum Mezzotint," 12:10 p.m., Friday, Jan. 19, in the exhibition gallery located on the museum’s first floor.

Gallery Talk: Joyce Robinson, curator, "Dox Thrash: Resisting the Urge Toward Whiteness," 12:10 p.m., Friday, Feb. 2, in the exhibition gallery located on the museum’s first floor.

About the Palmer Museum of Art

The Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus is a free-admission arts resource for the University and surrounding communities in central Pennsylvania. With a collection of 8,850 objects representing a variety of cultures and spanning centuries of art, the Palmer is the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Areas of strength include the museum’s collection of American art from the late 18th century to the present, Old Master paintings, prints and photography, ceramics and studio glass, and a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. The museum presents 10 exhibitions each year and, with 11 galleries, a print-study room, 150-seat auditorium, and outdoor sculpture garden, the Palmer Museum of Art is the leading cultural resource for the region.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is closed Mondays and some holidays.

The Palmer Museum of Art receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Last Updated January 15, 2018