State of the Arts

S39 E2 | FULL EPISODE

W. Carl Burger: A Painter's Life

W. Carl Burger: A Painter's Life explores the career of a much-loved New Jersey artist and teacher with a retrospective at the Morris Museum spanning 7 decades. Carl emigrated from Germany at age one in 1926. Although he was declared an enemy alien, he was drafted and fought in WWII, where he visited the decimated German city of his birth. Later he became a professor at Kean University.

AIRED: December 16, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

Burger: I'm inclined to subscribe to

the idea of inspiration.

There are, often time, when I sit in front of a canvas

and I say, I don't know,

I'm not particularly in the mood today

and -- but I've got to get started.

And I would select the subject.

And the next thing you know it, once you got lost into it,

it was like some -- something took the brush and the water

and everything took over from you.

And before you were through it's like a runner.

You were out of breath, you were finally finished.

The best painting I ever did were paintings

that were created in this kind of context

that it's something took my mind and my hand over

and did it.

♪♪

Narrator: "W. Karl Burger: A Painter's Life."

"W. Karl Burger: A Painter's Life"

is made possible by

the New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation,

and these friends of "State of the Arts."

♪♪

Burger: If you were to see a cross section of my work,

I could be different artists at times,

and I admire Gerhard Richter

'cause he's known also for moving around.

He doesn't stay always just with one point of view.

A lot of artists are measured by consistency.

And if you're into dots like Larry Poons,

you better stick with those dots.

Or if you're Ad Reinhardt, you better have

white on white, black on black, gray on gray,

and don't deviate from that.

And every so often if you jump around you're considered

rather either you're not able to focus on anything particular.

Artists are faulted for that.

And I often thought about, you know, it's very difficult

to mount a show of mine because I do jump around.

When I find I've done enough of one particular aspect of it.

I like to move on.

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Narrator: The Morris Museum owns more than 400 works

by Carl Burger

and over the years has mounted several major exhibitions,

most recently in 2016 and again in 2020.

Labaco: Everything here is really incredible,

and it just shows sort of the trajectory of his career

and his interests.

He has explored a variety of media over the decades,

over 75 years of his career.

But he holds himself and his work

to a high standard of skill.

I think in part that's because he is just a natural teacher.

♪♪

Narrator: James Kearns is an old friend and colleague

best known for his paintings and sculptures

of the human figure.

He taught for many years

at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Kearns: There's the watercolors which tend to deal

with the sense of wonder of the world.

He loves the idea of nature.

♪♪

And then you have the drawings,

and the drawings,

they become very elegant.

And when he touches on people,

when he touches on the human condition,

they get into that little grotesque character.

He has strong opinions politically.

We stayed in touch for, what, 47 years,

something like that -- we've outlived,

all the people that we were associated with.

I'm 96.

Burger: There's about four or five of these

like in different versions, by the way.

Yes, I am running for office

and we're going to build a wall around my house.

Kearns: There was a critic of poetry

who once defined a lyric poet

as being a positive person,

but that doesn't exclude the dark side.

And in general, I would say that was --

that's what Carl is.

Burger: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much.

-Woman: Thank you. -Man: Thanks for having us.

Labaco: He has quite a following --

I've gone through his archives

and he just has so much fan mail and people just love his work.

People love Carl.

People lo-- Carl loves people as well.

And he'll be the first to tell you that I can't.

Burger: I can't believe this is happening to me,

you know what I mean?

Labaco: He probably hates to hear this,

but he's beloved in New Jersey.

Burger: Which -- [ Laughing ]

Which really amuses me to be --

I'd rather be a great artist rather than just be beloved,

because a lot of artists are not known to be very nice,

like Richard Wagner was a rat,

but he wrote great music, you know?

Anyway, I made my mark here in New Jersey.

I really do. -Woman: Well, come visit us

any time. -Yeah, I do. I miss it so much.

And, you know, I'll be honest with you that

I just hope that...

I was very lucky to have some wonderful parents,

and this to me is always the success of anybody's life,

the beginning years,

if you have parents that have focus for you.

And of course,

their focus was, "We love you dearly,

but remember, there are no free lunches.

You have to find a way of making a living."

But I would never have been good, let's say,

as a -- as a tradesman, that wasn't exactly my interest.

On the other hand,

I was certainly not interested in going into law,

although I have a very devious mind.

I think I could have become a lawyer.

And see it doesn't flow -- it doesn't flow enough.

Soften it, soften it.

I really started out as a puppeteer.

That's how I got into art, because as a puppeteer,

you have to design little sets for the marionettes.

You have to design the marionettes.

And at 14, I had a marionette company.

I was born in Pforzheim, Germany.

Luckily my father left Germany prior to the Hitler period.

And as a teenager in New Jersey, of course,

I went through the Depression and everything,

and then, of course, when I was about 16,

Hitler had invaded Poland and everything --

I remember we often used to go in --

there was a theater known as the Hindenburg.

Newsreader: This was Warsaw.

Repeat for 18 days.

Burger: And that had German newsreels

showing the bombing, Poland, everything else, and of course,

that upset me greatly what was happening

because I saw the war coming to us,

you know, that we would be getting into it.

And at that time, if you were not a citizen,

apparently, and you were German,

you were declared an enemy alien.

And I had to go to the post office and get fingerprinted,

which to me is really humiliating.

Narrator: Even though he had been designated an enemy alien,

Carl was drafted into the U.S. Army two years later,

at the age of 18.

He was sent to Normandy, France,

and landed on Omaha Beach.

But when his superiors

discovered he spoke fluent German,

he was transferred to Army intelligence

and largely avoided further direct combat.

Burger: I was there two months after D-Day in -- in --

I was stationed in Normandy. -Man: Okay.

Burger: And the Battle of the Bulge

was, you know, later on that year...

Between maneuvers, Ed Sweet and I

would go down to Rouen.

Now, getting the art supplies

in a war-torn country is very difficult.

But somehow we managed to find a little place.

We bought some watercolors.

I had brought brushes and things with me,

you know, in my knapsack.

So I would go down into town,

and there was this magnificent,

beautiful Rouen cathedral, you know,

that beautiful Gothic architecture.

I love Gothic.

One of the buildings that I drew was a place

where Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake.

That and many other drawings were sent home.

They never arrived.

Narrator: These are the only two that survive.

All the rest were lost in the transatlantic wartime mail.

♪♪

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Burger: My great period was always in the summer

when I did mainly watercolors and oils.

I sort of gravitated toward nature

because I remember when we were kids,

my dad used to drive us up into the mountains

outside of South Orange, Maplewood.

And they sort of just identified nature with a love

of the way the leaves change in the autumn

and following the stream, a dry bed stream.

And there was something about the smell of the woods.

♪♪

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When I moved from the 22 by 30 inch watercolors,

because that's sort of a standard size for watercolor,

I wanted to mount something

a lot more monumental, shall we say.

And I'll never forget when I started doing these,

these started in the '80s,

I started these enormous watercolors.

Narrator: One now hangs at Drumthwacket,

the New Jersey governor's mansion in Princeton.

It's one of only two works there by a living artist.

It's based on Carl's early memories

of the Jersey Shore around Brielle and Barnegat Bay.

Murphy: Welcome to Drumthwacket.

This is the governor's mansion here in Princeton.

The mansion was built over several centuries,

it became the governor's residence

in -- not until the 1980s, in fact.

First Lady Christie, Mary Pat Christie

put together an exhibition, I think it was back in 2014.

And fortunately, Carl agreed to have his painting serve

as part of that exhibition.

I do believe that his painting is the only one

that still remains here from that exhibition.

There are some works that just have a little something

about them that resonates,

and we try as best we can to hang on to them.

And I would say that Carl's "Jersey Shore, Brielle"

is exactly one of those that we have tried

to latch on to and keep here.

Carl paints up and down, all around New Jersey,

he loves to paint nature

and this -- this beautiful watercolor,

it could be in many different places in New Jersey,

but it's -- it's iconically Carl,

it's iconically Brielle.

[ Gulls crying ]

Burger: And in the winter,

I worked always on these pencil drawings and collages.

You know, the idea of the graphite and smearing it

and work it in with the regular linear elements of a pencil,

to me, just physically it was exciting.

This is a series of bird houses,

and I am now working on a sketch

which will eventually be translated with a painting,

either watercolor or oil,

and it's almost sort of in a style which is very,

shall we say, spontaneous in the sense

that while they're birdhouses,

they're very unorthodox, architecturally.

I have to allow mistakes and spontaneity

to work interchangeably in such a way

that the overall effect will still be --

what's a good word, valid.

♪♪

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Narrator: Carl's longtime partner, Peter Jones,

played an important role in the creation

of these drawings and collages.

Burger: Peter owned his own gallery and frame shop

in Flemington; I used to draw there.

By the way, he was an artist in his own right,

you know, he was a puppeteer, strangely enough --

talk about coincidence.

And under Peter's help and mentorship,

I did some big, big drawings of the architectural series.

I did a large drawing at the time

called "The Brooklyn Bridge,"

which was a big, big drawing of the old Brooklyn Bridge.

And so a lot of these things were due to Peter's help

and encouragement.

♪♪

Also in there was a group called the Papal series.

Labaco: Early -- early works do address more social issues.

Kearns: He is such a good technical virtuoso

that there's an elegance to his work.

But take a look at some of the figures

that are going on there

and you'll see some of that subtle grotesque.

Burger: I was sort of an activist

in terms of social -- you know, social things.

I decided one of the problems is

selling the idea to the public

that there are just too many people around,

you know, and I decided the pope is one of the problems.

Here's a man who could do a lot about it.

I used him as a central part of the drawing, and his eyes,

they were like large diagonal panels

exploding at the explosion of the population.

Labaco: He needs to present a position against academics

or heads of church or other religions.

I see that almost as if there's a conflict there

that he's working out in his work, like, on different levels,

because he loves life

and he talks about growth and plants and children.

And yet he's also a supporter of quality of life.

♪♪

♪♪

In the 1980s, he started doing collages, and again,

there's this -- when he talks about them,

he references manuscripts.

The images that he comes back to are...

they reference art and divinity.

So I think that this idea about

God and nature and beauty

are three themes that do recur.

♪♪

Narrator: After World War II,

Carl studied at New York University

and Parsons School of Design,

and then taught at several New Jersey high schools,

including Westfield High.

In the early '60s,

he embarked on a long career at Kean University

as a professor of art.

Navarra: Carl is an icon,

and he -- he's taught so many people.

And he -- at Kean, I mean, people from Kean love him.

I've never heard a bad word about him.

Narrator: His former student, John Sakelarides,

now teaches art and documentary film production

at Hunterdon High School.

Sakelarides: I've known Carl Burger now for 30 years.

Carl was able to find that one thing,

that one mark on that canvas that would change

the relationship throughout the entire canvas.

And he does that with individuals.

Carl finds a way to touch you

and to change you for the rest of your life for the better.

I love the fact that he includes politics,

that he includes the mundane,

and he finds a way to elevate every aspect of our lives

to this super experiential level.

Narrator: Bill Happel is a glass artist and sculptor

who studied with Carl back in the 1960s.

The two reconnected after more than 50 years

when Bill returned to New Jersey

to run his family's historic central Jersey farm.

Happel: I got lucky with Burger,

working in art and science

and theater and education,

and they were his passions.

Carl in the classroom,

Carl would come in completely animated,

never saw the guy have a bad day,

never saw the guy scowl,

laugh his tail off and tell you to get to work.

Burger: Bill inherited this very large farm

and he's equally proficient in adapting himself

to taking care of all the animals and everything,

but in the meantime, he's never lost his ability

to work with the glassblowing.

There are such wonderful students,

I remember sometimes at 3:30 at Kean University,

I used to jump down the stairs and I literally said,

I'm the luckiest guy in the world.

What a great job I have.

Woman: This is the first one that Ted had found.

Burger: Oh, you found this one!

Sigrid Haug Liepold is another former student,

now also a very close friend.

Their friendship began in Carl's art class at Kean University

when they discovered that they were both born

in the city of Pforzheim, Germany,

a city that was decimated in the war.

Carl witnessed this firsthand when he was sent to Pforzheim

as an American intelligence officer

right after the war ended in 1945.

Burger: I found the town was in complete destruction,

and Churchill had Pforzheim on the list,

along with Dresden.

Newsreader: RAF Lancasters

unload everything from 500-pounders

to blockbusters on Pforzheim.

Burger: What made it very sad was that

I met my relatives there

and one evening we drove through the ruined streets

and it was almost like ghosts.

You would see just the hulks of the buildings in the moonlight,

and everything was like silhouettes of broken metal

and shards of glass.

Years later, by accident.

I had a student at Kean University.

Her name was Sigrid Haug.

I learned that Sigrid been born in Pforzheim.

And as we spoke, she told me

about what it was like as a youngster

and how she experienced the bombing.

Newsreader: A city is literally being wiped out

before your eyes.

Explosions and fires are sucking the oxygen from the air.

Nothing can live in this inferno.

Burger: They had this book that had been published

in postwar Germany, called, "Untergang Einer Stadt."

Sigrid brought it to me one day...

Liepold: And I couldn't look at it.

It was just too disturbing.

80% of the city was destroyed,

and in the 20 minutes, more than 20,000 people perished.

And there were -- there were only women, children

and old people left.

Carl looked at it, was inspired.

And then he did a series of drawings.

Burger: I decided these are important themes

to record as an artist.

So I took the book, studied it thoroughly.

I translated it on large, large sheets of paper.

I did four of them.

Liepold: It inspired him in a way

that he had to document it in his own creative way.

♪♪

I don't know how many works that we have of his

because we just keep collecting, and I would say at least 50.

There is such a joy in seeing his work.

Narrator: After his partner, Peter Jones, died in 1990,

Carl started spending more and more time

at the Hunterdon County farm of his friend Russ Hosp.

There, he found a wonderful place to paint

and a circle of good friends.

Burger: I lost Peter in 1990.

I was 65 years of age.

He died at age 60.

I was really bereft.

I had this house in Long Valley.

Here I was, you know, really depressed.

I met Russ.

I saw this wonderful place with all the artwork.

I mean, some very sophisticated poster work, you know,

and a lot of antique-y stuff that he bought.

I said, this guy -- I mean, Russ was more

like a very down-to-earth farmer type.

He had this kennel -- he had about 30 German shepherds.

This was a kennel here, you know -- and I love dogs.

He invited here to paint -- of course,

because it's such a beautiful, beautiful, open space here,

and being alone by yourself in my house

after I became kind of tedious, you know,

just be by yourself.

And I'm a people person.

He loves people.

You can't even get to the front door

and he's offering you drinks and everything, right?

And he's a great guy to be with, and he loves art.

And I could finish this tomorrow morning

if we don't have any rain tonight.

And I want you to...

Hosp: Paints at the farm,

and it's such a big place that we really don't

run into one another that often.

I built a studio for him

and he paints in there.

He loves to paint.

♪♪

♪♪

Burger: I have friends here and I have a great life,

I'm a very lucky human being,

and I think one of the key to old age

and life is to have people around you.

Hosp: That's good. Yeah. That yellow up there.

Burger: Yes, it's good. Yeah. Thank you.

Hosp: Because you know I like color.

Burger: My severest critic,

my severest critic, Russell.

But the one thing I think which is

a demarcation for New Jersey art

is that we do have such a vast variety of great, great talent.

In New Jersey, we have a segment

of sort of German Americans, you know,

it's almost like a little school of or own,

like you have Hans Weingaertner,

Oscar Bluemner, I believe;

Adolf Konrad.

George Mueller.

I could go down the list.

Man: W. Carl Burger!

Burger: Well, Carl Burger, he's a come lately,

you know, he came lately, and, yeah.

Right here.

There, that's it, that's the balance.

Now, I have to finish it tomorrow morning.

Little touches in drawing, but it has to dry thoroughly.

There's so much you think you know when you're young

and when you look back now you say, gee, what a dam fool

I made of myself because I thought,

you know, this is -- I know, you know, in fact,

I remember ridiculing my mother when I was 20

because she was still very Roman Catholic.

And even though today I'm an apostate,

I realize what a terrible disservice

I did -- I should have known

there are many ways of trying to cope with our existence

here on Earth, and with her it was valid.

I recall when Ron, the curator, brought me in.

At first I didn't recognize it, that it was me.

And then as we came in more and more,

and the paintings all sitting there,

I really was impressed, and very happily so.

♪♪

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"W. Karl Burger: A Painter's Life"

is made possible by

the New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation,

and these friends of "State of the Arts."

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