The much-loved New Jersey artist and teacher W. Carl Burger celebrates his 95th birthday this year and I’m producing a new documentary about his life and work for State of the Arts. Our team has been filming interviews and collecting archival materials all summer, and we’ll continue shooting, writing and editing this fall. Over its long history, State of the Arts has made three in-depth features about Carl, so we are drawing on our own extraordinary archive to help tell his story. In the first feature, produced in 1983, Carl was still teaching at Kean University and living with his partner Peter in the house they built together in Califon, NJ. I produced the second story in 2001, right after moving to New Jersey to work at NJN Public Television – and right after 9/11. Carl was just finishing a large watercolor about the collapse of the Twin Towers. Then, in 2016, I made another feature with Carl when the Morris Museum celebrated his 90th birthday with a major retrospective.
This summer we’ve filmed the Morris Museum’s new retrospective exhibition, W. Carl Burger: Mastery of the Medium, spanning seven decades and an extraordinary variety of styles and subjects. There are watercolors Carl created in 1944 as an American soldier in Normandy, France; magnificent landscapes in oil and watercolor; intricate and provocative drawings focusing on social issues, including overpopulation and the Catholic Church; and collages inspired by medieval manuscripts.
There are challenges working in the time of Covid-19: everything takes extra time. We met Carl at the Morris Museum to film one of the two in-depth interviews we did this summer. Wearing a mask and plastic face shield and sitting ten feet away makes it difficult to have a normal conversation! Carl rose to the occasion. We also interviewed Ron Labaco, Chief Curator at the Morris Museum, several of Carl’s former students from Kean University, now artists themselves, and his friend and fellow artist and nonagenarian, James Kearns. Carl and Jimmy have had 3 joint shows over the years since meeting in the 1960s.
One of Carl’s large watercolors now hangs in the governor’s mansion. It depicts a scene at the Jersey Shore and is one of only two contemporary works now at Drumthwacket. So, we interviewed New Jersey’s FIrst Lady, Tammy Murphy. She praised Carl as an iconic New Jersey artist and wished him a happy 95th birthday – in German.
Ron Labaco points out that some might think Carl has led a privileged life as a white, male, university professor. But, as he points out and as we’ve learned from Carl, himself, growing up as a German immigrant in America during and after WWII was not easy. Having a life partner of the same gender, and all that entailed during the 1950s and ’60s, also had its challenges.
Carl is a virtuoso artist and passionate about the arts in New Jersey. He is also extremely social, funny, and has fiercely strong opinions. We hope you’ll enjoy meeting this extraordinary artist in our upcoming new documentary.
Producer, State of the Arts