The butterfly effect

When Edward Lorenz coined the term “butterfly effect” in 1969, he was talking about weather patterns, not art.  His theory that a puff of air from a butterfly’s wings could, in the right circumstances, amplify into a hurricane, was radical at the time.  The Museum of Art – DeLand has proven its ability to amplify the conversation about art in Central Florida, and just in the last two years has helped change the game.   No longer is Central Florida a refuge from ideas; instead it is attracting people with a hunger for visual aesthetics and the stimulation surrounding new ideas.  2015 has started off with three very strong artists:  Richard Anuszkiewicz, William Crutchfield, and Richard Haas all contribute unique visions to the conversation, earning the museum a solid position as a new leader in the visual arts of the region.

Dividing its space into an uptown museum and a downtown gallery, the Museum of Art sends people walking on the sidewalks of DeLand, a lively pedestrian experience.  Its openings start at happy hour, a smart move on the Museum’s part to capture a crowd already on the move and not ready to go home yet and chill.  The haute energy in the uptown museum sets DeLand’s tone for local elegance and sophistication; its downtown space at Woodlands and New York, however, is often the place for the bigger names.  The art here may feel more at home in a Manhattan-like loft atmosphere.  The two spaces synergize to create a buzz, and the sense that something important going on is, well, increasingly strong.

At the museum’s main facility, Richard Haas and William Crutchfield are on exhibit through April 5.  Richard Haas’ architectural drawings make you fall head-over-heels in love with architecture all over again.  His rigorous pen-and-ink drawings, dramatically colored, communicate a wild love affair with buildings.   His “Empire State Building,” done in 1997 after this icon had undergone a restoration effort, magnifies this building’s presence in one’s mind.   His “Chrysler Building,” in the same manner, captures this structure’s unparalleled aspiration to be the monument to man’s triumph of technology in the 20th century.

When I spoke with him recently about his work, Haas explained “I took about 12 years off of architecture to do other things.  I was working with a lot of the color field artists, like Richard Anuszkiewicz, doing collage and experimenting with the visual effects of pure color.   But something drew me back, made me return to architecture.”

Haas, who spent time interning with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen, went on to finish art school in Wisconsin.  This time in an architect’s atelier was formative, and Haas said “I knew I never wanted to be an architect…but I sure loved architecture.”  Richard Haas makes it OK to worship monuments, and in his book, institutions are OK.  We are allowed to see the city as an expression of the best of man’s creations; its beauty and aesthetic form has a power and majesty which Haas captures in his work.

Upstairs, William Crutchfield continues to toy with your taste for architecture and machine.   Science, that hallmark of contemporary western society, is seen through Crutchfield’s sly eyes as an object of social query.  Crutchfield has made a career of injecting irony into his views of technology; sometimes man wins, and sometimes the machine.   While his work is satirical, it is underlain still with a reverence towards the situation.  In this vein he’s like Haas:  neither is an iconoclast, but where Haas’ visions are unleavened appreciation for our institutions, Crutchfield hasn’t quite bought into the party line completely.

With gorgeously colored drawings, Crutchfield presents toy trains made of diamonds, owls transformed into various creatures, and the state of California on crutches (titled “Support California”).  His exquisitely rendered images have a studied casualness and a disarming spirit that renders huge machines in lovable ways.  Crutchfield rides the line between art and comic book, but his work is never repetitive nor is it cartoonlike.  His drawing ethic is so complete, so thorough, that a tiny sketch is entire narrative.   “From Logs to Light” depicts a log menaced by a saw, a little house patiently waiting for firewood hovering overhead.  The composition, and the dark night surrounding these earnest protagonists, is more balanced than many a larger painting in lesser hands.

Crutchfield’s questing eye has, for four decades, continued to uncover the paradox of man’s uneasy truce with technology.  Pairing the two artists makes for a nuanced tour between the sincere and the wry.  One comes from the experience refreshed, the dark shadows of science and technology disarmed, and, for at least the time being, fears about machines are banished to the dustbin.

For a singular, more personal relationship with the edge of the visual experience, look no further than the op-art world of Richard Anuszkiewicz.  By the mid 1960s, he had almost singlehandedly superseded the Abstract Expressionists, creating a new movement around the specific visual effects produced by color alone.  Coined “color field” by art critic Clement Greenberg, his work was groundbreaking, yet drew from a very long tradition by artists who knew how to manipulate perception with color.  Anuszkiewicz caps the Museum’s suite of work with a deeply moving body of work.

A student of the legendary color theorist Josef Albers, Anuszkiewicz declined the brushy, drippy style in vogue with the “action painters” like Jackson Pollock.  Instead, a sensuous drama takes place within one’s mind upon viewing his color studies.   Sensuous, because the viewer moves to activate an effect of the eye; sensuous also because multiple effects scintillate the mind while viewing a painting of his, effects at once primitive and sophisticated at the same time.

Stand in front of a painting such as the monumental “Mardi Gras,” a recent color study in his great tradition.  In the center, a tiny pink square sets up a series of concentric bands alternating pink, scarlet, mint, vermilion, and cobalt blue.  As you slowly step back, the colors effervesce and begin dancing.  The painting’s name become self-evident; the chromatic vibration is as close to retinal New Orleans jazz as one can imagine.  This is a personal, private experience, one that is impossibly diluted when viewing his work online or in books.  It is best experienced with the actual painting, and his shows attract a pilgrimage of artists searching for the true use of color.

Anuszkiewicz has stayed consistent with his early experiments throughout his career, and in this exhibit, an astonishing evolution of technique is available.  His 1990 “Inner Warm and Inner Cool” took his flat paintings into the third dimension with narrow, thin flutes painted in two interlocking parallelograms.  The resulting gallery wall peeking through each of the two open forms is, indeed, tinted by the colors surrounding it.

Richard Anuszkiewicz alludes to architecture in his work, more subtly perhaps than either Crutchfield or Haas.  His fascination with the fluted column comes through in many of his more recent works, and the implication of three-dimensional space – the province of architects – is made in two dimensional studies.  Taken together, the three are worth a visit by anyone concerned about the built environment, the importance of visual aesthetics, and our obsession with technology.

Implications of color, architecture, and science are woven together in the three artists’ work at the Museum of Art – DeLand.  The rich history of these ideas, dating back to the 1960s and earlier, are handed to viewers with no pretensions or spin.  The conversation about this art has tied into aesthetic questions on the lips of many today, and so once again the butterfly effect has proven itself true.

Where is Carl Degler when you need him?

“This is an excellent essay. You make a great point. I too have read Degler and your take is spot on. I think his position in historian circles is carried by guys like Thomas Sugrue.  Great work.”

-Julian Chambliss, Associate Professor of History, Rollins College

In today’s urbanized world, America seems at a turning point.  With the population increasingly concentrated in large cities, and wealth increasingly concentrated among the privileged few, people grapple with problems where they live and work in a different way than they did when more rural populations existed.  The big city was once a separate force that influenced, but did not directly affect, many lives.  Today, with these trends continuing into the foreseeable future, the American ideal appears to be subtly, irrevocably diluted, and replaced by something inauthentic and hollow.

As a student in Florida in the 1970s, Carl Degler’s ideas were presented to me at a unique period.  The Vietnam war had just ended, and the national identity was a bit sensitive at the time.  In Florida, we were highly conscious of the difficult relationship with Cuba.   American history was presented along with a Florida required course, “Americanism vs. Communism.”  The notion of Americanism – not capitalism, you may notice, or democracy, but “Americanism” – included the terms “melting pot,” “exceptionalism,” and “The American Dream.”  In Florida, a rural state with wide-open land at the time, this anxiety to present a unified, signature American identity was powerful to those of us coming of age.

Noted historian Carl Degler, who recently died, believed that ideas such as Americanism have a life of their own.  He dared to suggest that neither great men nor economic events shape history, but rather the toughness of ideas.   “Wherever men have striven to realize their moral visions, they have demonstrated that ideas, as well as economic forces, can change the direction of history,” Degler wrote in Out of Our Past.  His belief in a moral trajectory gradually became unfashionable, with the brute force of the “id” taking over in affairs such as invading Iraq.

With Degler’s death, the notion of history’s moral trajectory may have died also.  He refuted the notion of “melting pot”, citing the lack of assimilation of many ethnicities, and the stubborn refusal  of a few to put racism behind them.  Instead he called America a “salad bowl”.  He also rejected the idea of American exceptionalism, and noted that Jeffersonian ideals were only renewed through hard work.  Maintaining these ideals today, in America’s new urban face, seems a fading dream as well.

Degler studied the end of the 19th century, with rapid urbanization and industrialization.  That period has striking parallels to our country at the beginning of the 21st century.  Then, America seemed to leave behind Jefferson’s ideals of an agrarian-based egalitarian society:  free education, the principles of democracy, and land ownership.  Now, as we urbanize to a new and greater degree, and evolve from industrialization to digitalization, the same cycle appears to be occurring.  Here in Florida, urbanization is nearly complete, with a single archipelago of urbanity having spread its web across much of the entire peninsula.

Between 1880 and 1915, the industrial revolution severely challenged this ideal.  Populists, labor firebrands, and utopians contributed little to the solution, only sparking more controversy.  The polarization of society and divisive politics of the time was resolved, according to Degler, only by the rise of Progressivism which returned America  to a sense of balance.  The lack of a progressive “third way” today, when considering Degler’s thesis, is startling, given the higher concentrations of wealth and power than ever existed in the Gilded Age.

In the 1890s, no amount of handwringing by do-gooders helped reduce suffering of children in mines, oppresion of African-Americans, or the shameful exploitation of railroad workers.  Strikes increased divisiveness and polarized the country.  It was the ultimate emergence of progressivism in the reasonable center that true progress was made and that balance, the original founding principles, restored.  No such movement exists today.

Ever the iconoclast, Degler called the progressivist movement an essentially conservative one, simply pointing out that Fred Howe, and its other luminaries, pressed to conserve the original Jeffersonian goals of American reform.  Degler quoted Howe:  “The great problem now before the American people is, how can opportunity be kept open; how can industry be saved from privilege; how can our politics be left to the unimpeded action of talent and ability?”  Truly, the progressives formed the American Creed around the new city and industry which arose in that earlier era.

No progressivist center has yet emerged from today’s highly polarized political climate.  We continue to see and hear more and more divisiveness, and the upcoming presidential campaign promises to be the nasty.  Neither extreme side has brought the two sides together; here in Florida, political campaigns reflect this same dialectic.  Local races, once a bit more genteel, seem to be modeled after the national scene.  So a vacuum has opened up in the center, a vacuum that has yet to be filled.

And today, just as at the turn of the last century, there is little incentive to balance the conversation.  Degler’s essay “New World A’Comin’” noted that the rise of Progressivism came only after decades of serious abuse and human tragedy at the end of the Industrial revolution.  Progressives, such as Howe and fellow reformer E. A. Ross, encouraged the shouldering of a certain moral responsibility from top to bottom.  But up until Ross’s treatise Sin and Society in 1907, forty years of increasingly grisly and dark times for workers passed before things got much better.

Today, we see no dead children coming out of coal mines, no dead bodies from strikers, and no labor riots in the streets.  Worker abuse is not a question of starvation or mortal danger.  So protest against the privileged wealthy class is, in absolute terms, less urgent than it was a hundred years ago.  Thus, any protest movement that emerges from our current troubles is comparatively mild, and it must fight against much more powerful odds to develop.  The news media has no vested interest in settling disputes.   The working class isn’t in peril for its life, and with superficial gains such as lower gas prices, any great settling of accounts between the working class and the elite seems to be put off to the distant future.

Here in Florida, the rancor of the governor’s race seems forgotten.  People are back to work, tourists are flowing into the state, and the population is swelling.  Construction, thanks to easy credit, is everywhere.  Reform is unlikely while the good times are here.  Americanism, it seems, has triumphed, and the quaint, Jeffersonian notions of an agrarian, egalitarian society are collecting dust for the time being.

We therefore seem to be beginning the early period of this century with a sense of entrenched interests settling in for the long haul, and little can be done about it except to encourage escapist consumer behavior to distract people from their situation.  Since the situation is not dire, and we have temporary sops like low interest rates and low gas prices, there is no great protest, and certainly no middle ground in the process of formation.

Instead we have a superficial choice between two political parties that seems less and less substantive, and more and more like a marketeer’s dream:   coke or pepsi.  Degler’s notion of history as a continual evolution of ideas is, for now, dormant.  For those of us lucky enough to have read Degler’s Out of Our Past in Florida’s public schools, the provocative ideas in his book are still with us, and they may still be put to good use when soft drinks go out of style and the city is thirsty for reform.

A watered-down version of this will be published soon in The New Geography.

When density is destructive

Brick streets, mature old oaks, and a sense of history imbue Winter Park, Florida with a sense of place that is the envy of many small cities and towns. The tony Park Avenue brings shoppers and visitors, who soak up its ambience and enjoy the street life of this quaint southern town. On the east side, bounded by blue lakes, lie gentrified historical mansions, while the west side is a neighborhood of smaller, affordable homes with multigenerational Winter Parkers. This community of little single-family homes is now endangered by developers that are gobbling up parcels two and three at a time, increasing the density threefold, and squeezing out residents in a new, “zoning for dollars” economic climate.

Brick streets, mature old oaks, and a sense of history imbue Winter Park, Florida with a sense of place that is the envy of many small cities and towns.  The tony Park Avenue brings shoppers and visitors, who soak up its ambience and enjoy the street life of this quaint southern town.  On the east side, bounded by blue lakes, lie gentrified historical mansions, while the west side is a neighborhood of smaller, affordable homes with multigenerational Winter Parkers.  This community of little single-family homes is now endangered by developers that are gobbling up parcels two and three at a time, increasing the density threefold, and squeezing out residents in a new, “zoning for dollars” economic climate.

Affluence and affordability have always maintained an uneasy truce, and the balance between them has historically been protected by cities through planning policies and an understanding that the mission of a city is to be workable for all of its residents, not just the wealthiest.  Unfortunately, this balance tilts when the density imperative drives land values up, and tips the scales in favor of half-million dollar townhomes. High density has become fashionable in Winter Park these days, as it has in many cities, and there are some benefits to this new style.  The costs?  Well, those will be counted later.

Density’s benefits look great on paper: a higher tax base, expensive new housing, walkable urbanity.  When implemented well, these can make for positive changes.  Advocates preach careful, sensitive ways to develop: don’t smash large and small buildings together; don’t mix uses on a street, and ramp up from low to high density across a gradient of a block or two.  Advocates also preach a consensus-building process to avoid neighborhood clashes over growth issues.  In places where this has happened, like Coral Gables in Miami, the story has mostly been a good one.

The west side of Winter Park, with its cottages and modest residences for families, dates back to the 1920s.  Within the neighborhood are many small churches to which residents walk on Sundays.  Playgrounds, parks, and a community center characterize the West Side’s tree-shaded streets, and its proximity to the downtown area means jobs for many of its residents.  For the last ninety years, the city has evolved around this neighborhood, and many families go back several generations.  Its diversity includes many African American families, mixing with whites. It carved out a niche in the city.

Today, the West Side is an older and less affluent neighborhood that happens to be close to a desirable address.  The West Siders have already chosen their preferred building pattern and rhythm, infilling their blocks with new homes of similar size and scale, enlarging the tax base.  They already live a walkable urban lifestyle, use mass transit, and evolve with slow and organic growth.  In short, every urbanist’s dream.

Like many cities that have a working class enclave that butts up against a newly trendy one, Winter Park has encouraged dense, mixed-use development, while nominally protecting its existing neighborhoods.  And this is where the density equation seems to fall apart.  The residents who leave the area will no longer participate in the economy of Winter Park.    The new residents of half-million-dollar townhomes probably won’t ride the bus, walk to the churches, or otherwise activate the local streets.  So a natural piece of the city is lost forever. Urbanism, for all that has been written in favor of this ideology, is diminished for the sake of density.

West Siders protested in City Hall, asking the city not to upzone their neighborhood.  While City Hall nodded to its citizens, it had already quietly allowed upzoning to take place, taking advantage of tired homeowners who decided to cash in. Half-million-dollar townhomes, which could be built in other areas, are instead being built here, to take advantage of low land values.  Parking garages and midrise apartments now cast shadows on the adjacent small houses.  Land values may rise on parcels with new townhomes and midrise apartments, but immediately next door, the remaining adjacent little one-story cottage becomes particularly undesirable.  Its land value gets depressed, with its owner’s only hope to sell off to a high-density developer.  Step by step high density becomes more and more inevitable as the only solution left.

The market forces at work in Winter Park have played out elsewhere across the country, with old neighborhoods eroding.  This time around, with density all but institutionalized as the only acceptable way to grow, the deck seems to be stacked against entrenched locals.  Cities are re-writing their development codes in favor of shiny new mid-rises and high-rises, ignoring existing residents who won’t be missed till they are gone.

When the market, an amoral institution without sentiment, threatens neighborhoods, it is the job of City Hall to provide a hedge that ensures balance and fair play.  But citizens have to shout over the money in order to be heard, so local groups like the Friends of Casa Feliz have stepped in on their side.  If “zoning for dollars” can work against this section of the city, groups fear, then no one is safe, and people are reminding City Hall of its duty as a guardian of its residents.

Density, on its own, is neither a good nor a bad thing.  It can make a city more efficient and connected, and proponents tout its reputed health benefits and contribution to a thriving social life.  When, in the process of allowing density, a city destroys the very values that it is supposed to promote, then the city ends up cannibalizing its neighborhoods for little benefit other than the one-time gain that the developers will realize from the sale of these newly built products.  Income streams are put into mortgage-holders’ pockets, and, bit by bit, one more highly localized economy disintegrates.

City halls, so obsessed with petty regulations, would do well to recall their basic functions as protectors of their residents.  If there were a “back to basics” movement for government, many ordinances written to benefit the few would be shed, and there would be a refocus of attention back to the public good.  The current infatuation with density, like many fashionable ideas, may come and go, but if a multigenerational neighborhood goes, it won’t be replaced in our lifetime.

This article first appeared in The New Geography.