A PROMINENT FIGURE in the Philadelphia arts community, Moe Brooker (1940-2022) died on Jan. 9 after a brief stay at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. An artist and educator who had served as chair of the Philadelphia Art Commission, Brooker was 81.

Active for more than half a century, Brooker made abstract paintings composed of bands of vibrant color, shapes, patterns, and distinctive lines. He said his work was about “the joy of the human spirit.”

His earliest influences were rooted in family experiences. Growing up in the A.M.E. church where his father was a minister, Brooker internalized what he described as the “expressive language” of the Black church, the spoken word, the hand clapping, and the gospel music.

With an older brother who was a jazz pianist, Brooker grew up with jazz and acquired an appreciation for its improvisational nature. In the studio, Brooker always painted with jazz or classical music playing in the background.

He was also inspired by the quilt making of his grandmother who lived to 104. He watched as she pieced together each of the fabric works, making design choices in terms of form, shape, and color as the quilts came to life.

Pursuing his own practice, Brooker started out making figurative paintings. Initially, he was drawn to the spirit and sensibilities of Henry O. Tanner’s work. By the early-1970s, armed with a formal art education, he began to transition to abstraction, encouraged and influenced by Raymond Saunders and drawn to the freedom the style provided.

“When my son was born, I did a series of paintings about him, but they were still semi-abstract,” Brooker told PBS in 2017. “You could recognize shapes. You could recognize sort of sky, but they all had bands around it that were restrictive and that restriction was not only a question of a device for composition, it was about how I felt as a person (as a Black man) in this country.”

 


MOE BROOKER, “Unspeakable Joy,” 2016 (mixed media on canvas, 60 × 60 inches / 152.4 × 152.4 cm). | © Moe Brooker, Courtesy the artist and Stanek Gallery, Philadelphia

 

BORN IN PHILADELPHIA, Brooker grew up in West Philly and went on to obtain multiple credentials from the city’s arts institutions. In 1963, he received a certificate of painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). After serving in the U.S. Army (1964-65), he later earned a BFA (1970) and MFA (1972) from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.

Over the course of his career, Brooker taught at several art schools including the University of Virginia, Charlottesville; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Cleveland Institute of Art (1976-85); Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and Tianjin College of Fine Arts in China. He also served for three years as chair of the Foundation Department at Parsons School of Design in New York City. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Brooker joined the faculty at Moore College of Art & Design in 1995 and served as chair of the Foundation Department until he retired (2004-12).

Brooker is renowned in Philadelphia and Cleveland, where he was the first African American to serve on the day school faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art. In 1985, he received the Cleveland Arts Prize.

As chair of the Philadelphia Art Commission from 2006 to 2012, he played a key role in the 2009 approval of the Barnes Foundation constructing a new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the wake of its much-debated plan to relocate from suburban Merion, Pa., to Center City Philadelphia.

For more than two decades, Brooker was represented by Sande Webster Gallery in Philadelphia, which specialized in work by Black artists before closing in 2011, and June Kelly Gallery, a Black-owned gallery in New York. More recently, Brooker was represented by Stanek Gallery in Philadelphia.

Brooker is represented in the collections of major museums, has exhibited internationally, and received many awards and accolades over the years.

In 2015, he completed “Just Jazz,” a towering public art commission for the Long Island Railroad in New York. Installed at the Wyandanch station, the work is composed of 28 hand-painted glass panels rising five-stories high on the exterior of a parking garage.

The Philadelphia Convention Center commissioned a painting by Brooker that was installed in 2017. An abstract composition, the artist described “Amazing Grace” as representing the activity of the conventioni center space, “the excitement and the energy when you bring a number of people together.”

 


MOE BROOKER, “Spirit of Promise #1,” 2018 (mixed media on paper, 9 1/2 × 9 1/2 inches / 24.1 × 24.1 cm). | © Moe Brooker, Courtesy the artist and Stanek Gallery, Philadelphia

 

Brooker was profiled by PBS in 2017. He spoke candidly to Jim Cotter about his work and his experiences as an artist and educator:

    What a Painting Wants
    Paintings take on a personality. A painting begins to develop characteristics and as you begin to move through making decisions, it accepts or rejects decisions and the further you go in the painting the more it begins to say, “I want this” and “I don’t want that.” And I tell you, it is no joke, if you decide I don’t give a damn what this painting wants, I going to do what I want to do, you will lose the painting like that. Because the painting has a life.

    Pioneering Professor
    Every school that I’ve gone to, I was the first Black person in that department. University of Virginia, I caught hell. University of North Carolina, I caught hell. Cleveland became a different situation. When I came it was very nice and they treated me very nicely. But I was the first one.

    Jazz Influences
    Improvisation is a choice that’s made very quickly with a point and purpose in mind. A lot of people say, “Well, I can do abstraction.” Okay. “I can do jazz.” Okay. And when you see what they come up with, they don’t have the sensibility. They don’t have the tools. They don’t have the understanding of the process that’s necessary. You are hearing, you are listening, and you are making a choice. Millions of choices are there and you make one that’s just right because of what you are hearing. Same thing goes on for me in the painting.

At the time of his death, early plans were underway for a career retrospective of Brooker at the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. Now a posthumous project, the exhibition is expected to open in about two or three years. CT

 

FIND MORE The Philadelphia Inquirer published an obituary of Moe Brooker

FIND MORE about Moe Brooker on his website

 


The Jazz Sensibilities of Moe Brooker, from the PBS Series Articulate with Jim Cotter, Season 1 Episode 2. The artist talks about his work, jazz inspirations, and race-related challenges he experienced and observed over the course of his career as an artist and professor. | Video by PBS

 


A short documentary by John Thornton, who first met Moe Brooker as a student, offers a look at the artist in his studio and sheds light on his life, work, ideas, family, and the joy of painting. | Video by John Thornton

 


Moe Brooker briefly describes his early life, initial experiences making art, and the work he created for the Philadelphia Convention Center in 2017. | Video by PCC Art

 

READ MORE Nikki A. Green wrote about Moe Brooker, exploring his paintings as sacred works and “investigations into the divine” (Panorama, Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, Spring 2018)

FIND MORE about the Barnes Foundation’s move from Merion, Pa., to Philadelphia and the historic ties between the Barnes and Lincoln University, an HBCU. Watch the trailer for “Art of the Steal” documentary, visit the Friends of the Barnes Foundation website, review background information from The New York Times and Lincoln, and read a National Public Radio report about the Barnes opening in Philadelphia

FIND MORE about Raymond Saunders whose work was recently on view in San Francisco at Andrew Kreps Gallery: “40 Years: Paris/Oakland”

 

BOOKSHELF
In 1983, a group of mid-career African American artists in Philadelphia, including Moe Brooker, formed Recherché. Given the limited opportunities for Black artists at local art galleries at the time, the goal of the association was to provide affirmation, encourage growth, and identify collective opportunities to present their work. “Recherché” was published on the occasion of a group exhibition of their work at Hampton University Museum in 1992. The show featured Brooker, Charles Burwell, Don Camp, Hubert Taylor, James Brantley, Jimmy Mance, Nanette Acker-Clark, and Walter Edmonds.

 

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