Moe Brooker, Painter


There is a kind of joy in Moe Brooker’s art, an irrepressible exuberance, that brings to mind a line by Gerald Manley Hopkins: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Brooker found it—of all places—on the walls of Cleveland underpasses and abandoned buildings festooned with urban graffiti. Part of what captivated him, he told Sun Press art critic Marie Kirkwood on the occasion of his 1978 solo show in the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Ross Widen Gallery, was the dialog that develops as other kids “scribble further comments” on the original statement or its author.

It reminded Brooker of what jazz players do when they play together, and he found himself thinking of the “lines, dots and shapes” on the page that are the “directions for making music.” You can see all of this in the paintings that resulted, Kirkwood observed: swooping arcs, “a violet, a star, a heart in unusual, lovely colors,” the bold strokes, passionate or playful, that play off one another like jazz riffs. For Brooker, these fresh, vibrant colors locked together like musical chords,” he told writer Ann Jarmusch, while pastel calligraphic marks, like notes on a staff, set up a pulsing rhythm. Indeed, the titles of many of Brooker’s paintings from the 1970s and ’80s—No Way Out, Release Yourself, Just Out of Reach, As I Rise—suggest movement, discovery, a striving. In these works the lines are always going places. They also embody very different spirits, critic Anne Lockhart observed, one seeming to be “darting,” another “rambunctious.”

Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s and ’50s, Brooker was shaped, he says, by the playing of his jazz musician brother Mack Henry Brooker Jr. (who took the stage name Mitch Avery to avoid embarrassment to their father, the Rev. Mack Henry Brooker Sr.). The aesthetics of be-bop, the artistry of Charles Mingus in particular, captivated Moe; but what he later came to see as black inner-city anguish led him to execute his paintings and drawings, then mostly figurative, in somber hues.

It was his exposure to another, very different culture as a soldier with the U.S. Army in Korea (1964–1965) that was to cause Brooker to reexamine the way he thought about life and would, over the next several years, transform the young artist’s work into something rich and strange. Brooker was struck by the fact that “mourners at Korean funerals wear vivid, bright-colored clothing in celebration of the transition from one life plane to the next rather than despair at death.” Was this ancient culture in fact on to something? Had a similar intuition of something that was finally more real than the merely physical, observable aspect of existence found expression in the impetuous bursts and exquisite musical arcs of Mingus and “Bird”?

Gradually, says critic Anne Lockhart in the cogent catalog essay she wrote for Brooker’s1980 one-man show at the New Gallery, he began “to synthesize his urban experience with his Korean insights”; the “shimmering neon lights of Chestnut Street in Philadelphia [became] bands of color surrounded by auras in his paintings and drawings”; black backgrounds “reminiscent of the sky on a neon-lit night” became a frequent feature of Brooker’s paintings for the next several years. To achieve desired effects, he began to combine oil paints with oil pastels and spray paint, eventually adding watercolors, stamps, encaustics and oil stick.

In the course of re-exploring the gospel songs and spirituals of his own heritage as a member of a gospel group, Brooker learned that Bach had written “TTGG”—or equivalent letters in German that stood for the phrase, “To the Glory of God”—beside his name on his scores. The painter began signing his own newly energized work in a similar manner.

In 1976 Moe Brooker (he consciously carries the spirit of a close friend of his parents named Moe whose own promising life was ended in the Second World War) was the first African American on the day school faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art. For the next decade he would commute weekly between Philadelphia, where his wife and young son continued to live, and Cleveland, where he took a furnished room on East 115th Street, a short walk to the Institute and the Boarding House, a legendary jazz club in the old Commodore Hotel. A prolific painter despite his teaching load, he maintained studios in both cities and showed his work in numerous group- and one-man shows, taking prizes in far-flung exhibitions. He took first prize in the 1978 and ’81 May Shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which added Brooker’s work to its permanent collection, and, in 1985, the Cleveland Arts Prize.

Other public or corporate collections that own Brooker’s work include the Studio Museum in Harlem, Montgomery Museum of Art, the Musée des Beaux-arts de l’ Ontario, Xerox Corporation, General Motors, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Having taken his own formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University (B.F.A.,1970; M.F.A., 1972), Brooker has held faculty positions at, besides CIA, New York’s Parson School of Design (as chairman of the foundation department), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and, since 1995, Moore College of Art and Design, where he is currently professor and chair of the basics department.

He continues to challenge himself—and his students—by posing spatial and metaphysical problems. “As an artist, new information and experience are vital to my work,” says Brooker. “Painting is about making visible a thought or an idea. ‘Making visible’ for me is about the asking of questions. Questions cause search, leading to invention resulting in discovery.”

—Dennis Dooley

For more on the artist, including recent work, go to



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