When you think of an exhibition of watercolors, you’re likely to envision ordinary tranquil scenes of landscapes — perhaps a cottage nestled amongst a forest glade, a brook babbling over stones, or a sun porch with a swing on a summer day — framed in a warm, wood frame, and of modest size.
Such is not the case with “New Jersey Landscapes,” a retrospective of the watercolors of W. Carl Burger, on view through Thursday, February 22, at the Rider University Art Gallery. Burger will give an artists’ talk on Thursday, February 1.
While Burger’s images revolve around landscape images, they are anything but ordinary and tranquil. (Further, they are up to four, five, even, six feet feet in width.) In one of Burger’s more literally-depicted landscapes, “Marilyn and Ray’s Garden — Peapack-Gladstone,” the viewer recognize a pool in the foreground with corresponding furniture and foliage, and a house or cottage in the background, beyond the pool. While the images and basic composition are identifiable, they are not completely literal. Some of the forms are rendered more literally, like the pool deck and furniture; others less literally. The house/cottage is rendered more by color mass and a few quick linear strokes, gesturing to suggest architectural form.
In some of his Burger’s abstract work the influence of the landscape is obvious but the literal depiction is almost completely obliterated. “Trogler’s Pond” is segmented into smaller rectangles. The colors and elements read as landscape but it’s almost as if you are looking at a few small grids of one of Chuck Closes’ paintings, where the parts make a cohesive whole from a distance, but up close are broken down into simple elements of color. In “Trogler’s Pond” we can see foliage in the red highlights and yellow washes against a blue-green ground. We see reflectivity in green washes in the lower third of the painting, with a hard-edged upper line. Yet what is “reflected” is not shown above that line.
Burger, now in his 80s, has been painting for decades. According to the exhibition catalog in a conversation held between Burger and Harry I. Naar, professor of fine arts and gallery director at Rider University, Burger recalls: “In high school, I would look at a magazine called The Artists. In it, there was a section called “The Watercolor Page.” I was very inspired at that time by the English watercolor school, especially the painters Cottman and Turner.” And while in this exhibit we may not see the ties to such traditional watercolorists, in spirit we do see his passion for and mastery of the medium.
Having earned his degrees in art from NYU in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and experiencing the height of the abstract expressionist movement, Burger says, “While I was excited in the freedom of the movement, it left me indifferent because to me it appeared too superficial and too generalized. It is interesting that my style of painting would later turn into an abstract expressionist, and I shied away from being too literal.”
“New Jersey Landscapes” truly shows Burger’s ability to adapt the old and the new. Looking at the piece, “Tumble Meadows” the viewer is enticed by a simple landscape. Flowers and grass in bold colors are revealed below the blue of the sky. Upon further inspection, we see that these flowers and grasses are implemented in fast, energetic, strokes of color and line, and the seemingly placid yet colorful scene, from a distance, is not so easy to digest. What may once have been easy to call a sky above the foliage seems to become darker, more turbulent.
In the catalog Q&A with Naar, Burger says, “I realized that I did not have to be so literal in my depictions to create an image of the landscape. To me, the landscape is always changing, and I feel that my style and technique tries to reveal this feeling.”
In the seemingly light image in “Cataract – Stockton,” for example, we see trees above and reflection below. Actually there are visual hints of trees and visual hints of reflection, but there is no entire picture to be made sense of. What we see is an image created by the artist’s conglomeration of views, who has seen these separate images before, and put them together into something we experience uniquely, artist and viewer, for the first time.
Art Talk, Thursday, February 1, 7 p.m., Rider University, Bart Luedeke Center Theater, Lawrenceville. In cnjunction with “Watercolors: New Jersey Landscapes,” by W. Carl Burger. www.rider.edu or 609-896-5588.
Gallery hours Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.