Steven Miller Remembers W. Carl Burger • (1926–2023)
Anyone who understands the challenges of watercolor painting or highly detailed graphite drawing understands what New Jersey’s Carl Burger achieved with these over his long career. His death two weeks ago at the age of 97 is a personal loss for those who knew him well and treasured his friendship. Happily, he leaves a remarkable visual legacy.
Carl was born in 1926 in Germany and came to the United States at the age of 6 months. He was raised in a bilingual family in Irvington, NJ. Early on his aesthetic talents were obvious. Initially, while concentrating on picture-making, he was also a busy set designer in local theaters. No doubt this was in sync with the dramatic flair of his art, which always reflected his energetic personality. Carl was happy to live and work in New Jersey. The state’s natural land, accepting art world and family support nourished him. A stint in the United States Army toward the end of World War II put Carl’s German to use. As his unit advanced into his home country, he was an interrogation translator for his officer corps as they interviewed Nazi leaders, including his uncle in his birth town! It was additionally ironic that the officers were largely Jewish. Carl personally saw the horrors and roots of authoritarianism. He knew freedom of expression is to be cherished and protected at all costs. Following the war Carl returned to his interrupted studies at New York University and went on to teach art for the rest of his employed life. He was a longtime professor in the art department of Kean University.
I met Carl in 2001 when I was hired to be the executive director of the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. My introduction started with his art, which was being installed as a retrospective at the time. I have dabbled in watercolors over the years and was immediately blown away by Carl’s work. Graphite is unfamiliar territory for me. That aspect of his talent opened new doors of appreciation. It is no surprise that Carl’s art is owned by many museums and he enjoyed many exhibits over the years. He was a long and loyal supporter of Phillips’ Mill. The teacher in him was never hidden, and he took a special interest in young artists showing there. He even complimented my meager watercolor attempts.
I have a large watercolor landscape Carl gave me when I retired from the Morris Museum. In typical fashion there is also a touch of pastel, charcoal, pencil and who-knows-what-other compatible mediums. The picture summarizes my own definition of him as a Representational Abstract Expressionist. I am always in awe at how normally unforgiving watercolors were so masterfully handled. Art is a form of personal communication. Carl has left us with so much of himself for present and future generations to discover and enjoy.
Steven Miller, of Buckingham, PA, is executive director emeritus of the Morris Museum and a member of the Phillips’ Mill Art Committee.