What is contained in the stroke of a brush? Or the interplay of shapes on a canvas? Could it be the same as what is intimated in the echoes of a church choir or the patterns of a quilt? For the late Philadelphian Moe Brooker, who died last January, the answer is emphatically yes: structures that underlie art are transferable across mediums and cultures. If Brooker’s extraordinary artistic vision wasn’t enough, he also imbued philosophy into his work. Every piece is a foray into human joy and the divine. Brooker's journey is the story of an artist navigating Philadelphia, its exclusive—and exclusionary—art scene, and finding a unique voice through his paintings. But it is also a universal story, the search for joy and meaning in life.
Hues of Life
Brooker wasn’t always an abstract artist. His contrasting experiences at funerals in Philadelphia and Korea helped to shape his unique sense of color that led him away from a realist style. Dressed in mourning clothes, a young Moe Brooker made his way to funeral masses; the unique part about being the son of a minister is the ready–at–hand access to death. Remarking on this time of his life, Brooker could only mention the great remorse everyone at the funerals felt. He had not yet found color.
When Brooker was drafted to fight in Korea, he learned of a different way to view death at the funerals he attended. Rather than the dark hearses he saw in Philadelphia, the deceased were carried on carts bursting with bright pigments. Instead of huddling in a dimly lit church, people were celebrating. “I saw those colors, and my eyes were open,” Brooker said in a 2019 interview.
When he came back from Korea, Brooker asked his grandmother about color. She taught him the ways of African quilting. He recalled her saying, “We would get colors from here, and we would get colors from there, from garments, things that were old, and we would just regenerate them in terms of the color.”
Brooker was at first skeptical of this, and asked, “Do you ever worry about what kind of color you had?” She replied, “No you put some colors down. Then find the color that will bring them all together.”
Ever since that conversation with his grandmother, Brooker began to use a vast range of colors in his paintings, without scruples as to if they were ‘meant’ to go together. He possessed a wonderful knack to always make them work. He also incorporated traditional African quilting elements into his paintings, further developing his unique artistic vocabulary.
Nikki Greene, art historian at Wellesley College and the foremost authority on Brooker, described Brooker’s evolution from a naturalist school of painting to abstraction, as well as his relationship with color. “To take what would have been considered a serious study of natural forms by looking at the structure of nudes ... as a building block to something like breaking down the body and breaking down the elements of all kinds of approaches to art to then come to something that seems like he's thrown different colors on the canvas … it comes from years and years of study and influences to arrive at that,” she says.
But not everyone takes a liking to this style of painting. Even Brooker as a young artist wrote off abstract art. Coming from a realist tradition, it was hard to see abstract artists as anything but frauds. This skepticism to abstraction in art is “a classic response,” Greene says. “They see an abstract painting, and they say, ‘I can do that.’ The truth is that the arrival to what looks like chaos, that may look like a haphazard application of paint, is really a highly developed sense of color, formulas of light, of movement, and really a kaleidoscope of influences that you may not see on the surface.”
Portraits in Jazz
Brooker’s brother Mitch Avery struck the keys like warm bells, and manifold colors emanated off the piano. As a kid, Brooker’s “second sight,” or “the apparent power to perceive things that are not present to the senses,” scared him, but as a man it became his greatest tool to convey the unseen world. He saw auras around people that he incorporated in his work. Like Kandinsky before him, he believed in the idea that painting can be “visual music.” He is foremost inspired by the improvisational style of jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington.
Brooker also cited the classical composer Dimitri Shostakovitch as influential. In Brooker’s words, Shostakovitch’s “powerhouse” of a first symphony allowed the importance of line to shine through. Gospel music also influenced Brooker, from his many years of being involved with the Church.
Brooker said, “Jazz musicians listen to each other, and so for me, I put things down initially and let the shapes and the images begin to make some sort of relationship.” This improvisational style became his unique elan. Before him stood an infinite number of possibilities, but he used his artistic intuition to choose the single best one, which took years of practice and attention. Greene described his artistic method as if “he's in his studio, like a conductor, but he was also the orchestra. He's doing this mystical sound production through his work.”
But music took other forms for Brooker. Greene mentioned that he sang regularly with his late wife Cheryl, mainly in the context of faith and devotion. The sounds of their “beautiful” voices echoing off the walls is similar to Brooker’s painting style: singing through canvas.
The Many Forms of Philly
Not only did Brooker let music meld his art, but he also allowed Philadelphia itself to influence him. The city has a longstanding history of street art and mural work, which was pervasive by the time he was maturing as an artist. Greene elaborated on these influences: “He does have some work that's much more explicit about graffiti and using that kind of graphic language. By the 80s, graffiti was everywhere … he's soaking in all the influences, and he's able to meld them into his own language.”
In addition to the physical atmosphere around Brooker, the people around him influenced his art. “[He grew] up in the Church, where he could see black folks of Philadelphia and how they dress and how they match their styles … We refer to color blocking as so new in fashion right now, but he was picking up on the street styles and everything,” Greene says.
The historian was new to Philadelphia when she first began to get to know Brooker and his wife, and their friendship helped her learn the city. “It helped me to get to see a slice of Philadelphia, the spirit of the city, and the spirit of the Black community in Philadelphia, which has this very long history,” Greene says. “It's definitely different than if you just discover his paintings without knowing him. I think that's why I was really invested in continuing to study his work. I see his heart and a reflection of his personality [in his art].”
Whether or not you are new to Philadelphia, or have been a lifelong citizen, Brooker’s art both captures and forges anew the spirit of Philly. Greene remarks on this symbiotic relationship between Brooker and Philly. “I think that the city was better for him being in it, and he better for being in the city,” she says.
But it was not always easy for Brooker, and it was a struggle to get his work shown at times. Greene remarks on what can be considered his largest professional challenge: the lack of a big retrospective or an exhibition of his whole artistic career. “I think he never quite got his full due … I don't know if folks felt like his work was hard to talk about,” she says. “Although he had the June Kelly Gallery in New York, representing him, he never rose to the height of popularity and fame that I think he warranted.”
While Philly was his hometown, it was not always kind to him and his work, which also had to do with race. Brooker himself stated in an interview. “There weren’t options for an African–American painter to be in a gallery here in Philadelphia.” Until Sande Webster opened up a gallery in Philly with a special interest in Black artists, his work was not being shown.
Painter of Joy
Moe Brooker was an unyielding optimist: One can see from his use of color alone that he had joy bursting forth through him, finding outlet on canvas (and in some cases, public installations). But in a way, this is Philly too. Greene says, “There is a stubborn hope about [Philly].”
So even when Brooker faced racism in having trouble getting his artwork shown, he had this “stubborn hope” that everything would work out. When Brooker was off teaching in Ohio and his family was in Philly, he never gave up, Greene says. He utilized bright colors to communicate a wholly different feeling: joy.
What about joy was so important to Brooker? It was not mere happiness. In fact, Brooker stated, “It has nothing to do with happiness.” It was a much more encompassing philosophy of life. For Brooker, joy was knowledge of place and purpose, and a strong sense of perseverance: “A way down deep knowing that there isn't anything that you can’t overcome.”
His grandmother, whose parents had been slaves, had helped to instill this conviction within him. Brooker was a lifelong religious man, and was deeply devoted to his faith. He even saw painting as a form of “daily devotion.” However, these convictions he held about joy can be separated from religion. “I’m not interested in religion as such, I’m interested in a spiritual issue which is available to every human being,” he said. “You can overcome anything that's put in front of you. That's how you find the joy. Nothing can defeat you and let you live it and that knowing is the joy.”
It is this search for joy that made Brooker not only an artist but a philosopher. Greene gives insight into how to access this deeper meaning in his work: “A viewer seeing Moe’s work for the first time should allow themselves to be delighted by it. Find the light. Find the joy, he wanted to express. It's there to behold.”
Brooker hoped that Greene would curate a full retrospective before he died. She still hopes to do so in the near future.