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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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;
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.
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.
"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."