Moe Brooker, 81, a painter known nationally for his extraordinary use of color in abstract compositions, an educator who taught at a number of art schools in Philadelphia and around the country, and a civic-minded public official who chaired the Philadelphia Art Commission for nearly a decade, died Sunday, Jan. 9, after a short hospital stay.
“Moe -- where do you even begin? Really a leader in the art world of Philadelphia,” said William Valerio, director and chief executive of Woodmere Art Museum. Mr. Brooker “was an artist who gave of his time generously to the broad community of artists of the city, to the broad community of Philadelphia,” said Valerio. “He believed that art was a necessary ingredient of public life, and so he was generous with his time.”
The Art Commission is a city-charter-mandated panel that reviews virtually all changes and additions to the streetscape, including signage, and must approve projects and street furniture within 100 feet of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Mr. Brooker served on the commission off and on beginning in the mid-1990s. In his role as chair, which he held from 2006 to 2012, he had a major influence on the artistic environment of the city -- most notably the 2009 approval of the new Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway.
“He would make decisions on the basis of what is really important for the creative health of the city, what is it that makes Philadelphia a better city for artists,” Valerio said. “That’s how Moe approached all the work that he did.”
As an educator, Mr. Brooker taught at many institutions, including the University of North Carolina, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1995 he joined Moore College of Art and Design, eventually chairing the school’s foundation department.
Mr. Brooker was beloved by his students. Filmmaker John Thornton credits Mr. Brooker with “changing my life.” A graduate of the University of North Carolina in the 1970s, Thornton was considering art school when he encountered Mr. Brooker on campus in Chapel Hill.
“He would look at my work and give me feedback and after several months, I asked him if he knew of any good art schools, and he told me about the academy. And that’s why I came here,” Thornton recalled.
As it happens, Thornton started at the academy in 1976 just as Mr. Brooker had begun teaching there.
“I remember the first day of class,” Thornton continued. “I was so embarrassed at how bad I was, compared to what I thought was the brilliance of the other students, that I would cover up my drawing during breaks.”
In a state of despair, Thornton turned to Mr. Brooker. “He said, ‘First of all, the other students that you think are so good, are not good at all yet.’ And then he said, ‘If you already knew how to do this, there really wouldn’t be much point in going to school, would there?’ And it just hit me like one of the 10 Commandments. That was like absolutely true. And he essentially told me, ‘Put your ego in check and just try to learn how to do this.’”
Mr. Brooker was born in Philadelphia in 1940, one of seven siblings, and attended public schools, including South Philadelphia High School. He received a certificate in painting from the Pennsylvania Academy, and a BFA and MFA from Tyler School of Art.
Steeped in Philadelphia’s figurative tradition, Mr. Brooker came to abstraction in the early 1970s, thanks to the influence of painter Raymond Saunders, who told him that “abstraction is simply taking the elements that you use and using them perhaps in a unique way,” Mr. Brooker once recalled. “That is what I’ve always believed.”
Mr. Brooker’s love of classical and jazz music (he always played music as he painted) eased the transition into abstraction – as did his adventurous sense of color.
Mr. Brooker liked to tell the story of growing up in Philadelphia, the son of a minister. As a youth, he associated funerals with dark, somber clothing, and the appointments of grief attended to by his father. But in 1964, in the Army stationed in Korea, Mr. Brooker encountered a typical Korean funeral cart “highly decorated [with] bright colors – reds, oranges, purples, greens, yellows,” Mr. Brooker told Thornton in an interview recorded in the filmmaker’s Moe Brooker -- Painting Joy. . “I saw these colors and suddenly my eyes were opened.”
He was reminded of his grandmother’s quiltmaking, and that, in turn, led to his unusual use of color, an echo of his grandmother’s use of different colors from different scraps of quilt.
Painter James Brantley was a friend of Mr. Brooker’s from the days in the 1960s when both attended PAFA. ”In the beginning of his career, it was difficult to find representation in Philadelphia to show his work,” Brantley said. As a Black man, Mr. Brooker had trouble breaking into the city’s mostly white gallery scene. “They felt at that time that if Black people were showing, white people wouldn’t come.”
Sande Webster was the first commercial gallery to open its doors for Mr Brooker, Brantley says. “It was from there, he just took off.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Brooker, along with Brantley and several other Black artists, many from the Webster gallery, joined a group known as Recherché. The group showed in Europe and South America as well as in New York and elsewhere in the United States.
“The philosophy was that as Black people, it would make more sense to exhibit together in a group rather than individually,” said Brantley. “We’d probably have more of a chance to present the work in that way. So we banded together.”
Mr. Brooker received many awards during his lifetime, including the 2014 Philadelphia Sketch Club Medal, the 2011 Legacy Award from the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the 2010 Hazlett Memorial Award for Artist of the Year, and the 2003 James Van Der Zee Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fabric Workshop. Most recently he was honored in 2021 by the Historic Germantown Hall of Fame.
Mr. Brooker showed at Sande Webster Gallery in Philadelphia for many years and at June Kelly Gallery in New York. Most recently he was represented in Philadelphia by the Stanek Gallery.
His work can be found in numerous public collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Woodmere.
At the time of Mr. Brooker’s death, Woodmere was in the early stages of mounting a major career retrospective exhibit of his paintings. Valerio, the Woodmere director, said the exhibition is about two or three years off.
Mr. Brooker is survived by his wife, Alfreda; a son, Musa; a daughter, Mishar; a brother, Robert; and a sister, Dr. Vivian Brooker Ford. Mr. Brooker was previously married to Virginia Robinson Brooker, a retired schoolteacher, and to Cheryl McClenney Brooker, who died in 2019.
A private funeral was scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 22, at the First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia. A public memorial is being planned for some time in February at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.