The Jazz Sensibilities of Moe Brooker
Moe Brooker is rightly regarded as one of the greats of American abstract painting. He has stared down adversity but admits that he’s also been lucky.
Moe Brooker (1940–2022) was an internationally renowned visual artist, known for infusing the attitude and spirit of improvisational jazz into his vivid abstract works.
Born in Philadelphia, Brooker studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He taught printmaking at the Brandywine Workshop while completing his MFA. After graduation, he had professorships at the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, and the Cleveland Institute of Art, before returning to Philadelphia to teach at PAFA. Meanwhile, he was refining his abstract painting and printmaking style, creating brilliantly colored abstract canvases with layered and lively patterns of stripes, squares, and circles.
His paintings are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Woodmere Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, PAFA, and other major institutions. He served as chair of the Philadelphia Art Commission and was named Pennsylvania Artist of the Year in 2010.
Moe Brooker: Paintings take on a personality. A painting begins to develop characteristics, and as you begin to move through making decisions, it accepts and rejects decisions. And the farther 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’m gonna what I wanna do,’ you will lose a painting like that. Because the painting has a life.
When Moe Brooker’s artistic career began, more than 50 years ago, no one—not even him—would have guessed that he would become one of America’s finest abstract painters.
Brooker: I thought abstract painters were charlatans. I thought they were frauds, phonies.
For much of his early career, Brooker was a realist. His transition to abstraction was gradual.
Brooker: When my son was born, I did a series of paintings about him. But they were still semi-abstract. You could recognize shapes, you could recognize a 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 in this country.
Brooker says that, as a black man in 1960s America, he was constantly reminded of his place in the world.
Brooker: You couldn’t find an apartment, you had to live in certain areas, and that’s all there was. Secondly, you couldn’t get a gallery in Philadelphia to take you on. They wouldn’t do it. And you would ask why, and they would say ‘well, you know, there’s probably people not interested in your work.”
Yet despite all of this adversity, Brooker was nonetheless aware that he’d been dealt a better hand than many of those around him—among them, his childhood friend, Horace Lovett.
Brooker: Horace was better than all of us. The difference is, Horace’s father had passed and Horace couldn’t go to art school. And it’s a loss. I mean, that’s what I felt, it was a loss, and I asked myself many times, ‘how many Horaces have there been?’ And I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and have the right parents that allowed me to, in fact, go on. I was not the best, but I worked hard at it.
This relentless determination helped Brooker begin to blaze his own trail.
Brooker: Every school that I’ve gone to, I was the first black person in their department. University of Virginia, I caught hell. University of North Carolina, I caught hell. Cleveland became a different situation, and when I came… It was very nice, and they treated me very nicely, but I was the first one.
Brooker’s artistic vision is strengthened by the gift of second sight, his innate ability to perceive colored energy fields around people and objects.
Brooker: And when I was younger, it used to scare me to death, but I see auras around people. That’s been incorporated, and if you look at my painting, you’ll see the sense of aura around a number of areas. I try to put auras around certain areas which give, I think, a sense of light.
This unique artistic vision was gradually strengthening his reputation, so much so that by the dawn of the new millennium, galleries in Philadelphia and New York were selling his paintings. He’d found his groove, in part, inspired by his love of jazz.
Brooker: Improvisation is a choice that’s made very quickly, with a point and a 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’re hearing, you’re listening, you’re making a choice. Millions of choices are there, and you make one that’s just right because of what you’re hearing. Same thing goes on for me in the painting.
By any measure, Moe Brooker is now living the life of a very accomplished painter. But he’s never measured achievement in terms of fame or fortune.
Brooker: I just wanted to paint, I didn’t care about whether or not I would be successful or make money. I mean, that wasn’t something that I did. I wanted to just be able to paint, and be the best painter that there ever was.
AJC: I’m not gonna ask if you’ve become the best painter that ever was. Have you become the best painter that you could ever have been?
Brooker: I am becoming. I never thought about doing sculpture. However, sculpture was something that happened. I never thought about doing stained glass, stained glass happened. Becoming is what I insist on anyone thinking about me. I’m becoming, and will continue to become.