The Mix Master
How a local scientist swirls pixels instead of paint to create abstract works of art
Allen Hirsh, a practitioner of what is known as “fractal art,” created this self-portrait from a photo taken in 2016. For the smaller image, titled “Kaleidoscope à Chuck Close,” he used a picture of silk flowers in a vase. Images Provided by Allen Hirsh
“The computer is much more powerful than Picasso,” asserts Allen Hirsh. Boldly. Hirsh is given to such statements as he seeks to explain his specialized form of art—painting without a literal brush, palette or canvas but nonetheless creating colorful abstract images that he posts online and sells as framed prints as large as 54-by-72 inches.
Hirsh is a local practitioner of what is known as “fractal art,” utilizing computer algorithms and software he writes himself to mess with colors, pixels and images that begin as basic photographs of flowers or barns.
Applying his computer magic, he then transforms them into something unrecognizable but striking. The digital works, which appear daily on Instagram (@the_abstract_gardener), have evocative titles such as “Twilight at a Transcendent Monastery,” “Arachnids in Love,” and “Phantom Opposing.” Except for an occasional distorted image of President Trump, his work is artistic and apolitical.
Hirsh is the self-named “Abstract Gardener,” and he comes by this moniker honestly. The Friendship Heights resident was raised on a chicken farm and nursery in the central New Jersey coastal town of Toms River, one of several in the area settled by Jewish immigrant farmers around the beginning of the 20th century.
Hirsh’s family was among them. Growing up as a farm kid—his parents separated and his mother owned and operated a nursery—Hirsh developed an interest in science and math. His boyhood hobby was raising pet spiders. As a high school junior, he won a scholarship to work in a science lab at Stanford University, which led him to Cal Tech and then to Columbia University with a fellowship in neurobiology, followed by three years back on the farm with his mother.
Primarily interested in plant physiology, he earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland while working at a nursery in Potomac to pay the bills. In the 1980s, he started his own landscaping firm, which he called “The Intense Gardener.” Along the way, he met his wife, Rhonda Weiss, a lawyer for the federal government. They have two grown children: Ilana, whose photographs inspire his fractal art, and Jordan, who is a math whiz like his father and is currently in a doctoral program. On the side, Hirsh has tutored high school students in science and math, and done a little freelance landscaping.
So how can Hirsh’s art best be described? Think Picasso’s Cubism period squared, except this artist’s canvas is an 8-by-13-inch laptop screen. The equations are as simple as: x(new)=x+a*y*arctan(b*red_value_of_pixel) +c*a*arctan (d*red_value_of_pixel), where a, b, c, d are constants input by the user. At home with his algorithms, Hirsh has produced about 70,000 pieces. The maestro of math=art sits at a table in his spacious 12th-floor apartment overlooking the treetops of Upper Northwest D.C. and demonstrates how he “paints” a picture.
“It’s like a microscopically tipped brush, swirling pixels around, except mathematically,” he explains. “Math uncovers the hidden dimension found inside these photographs.”
Hirsh begins with a photograph, by Ilana, of a Dutch karaoke club outside Amsterdam, then with strokes of the keyboard turns it into increasingly abstract images. Within 20 minutes, he has created four variations that stretch reality into psychedelic-like forms. In the last four years, he has won six awards, his work has been juried into 50 shows, and he has even had one of his own shows at Foundry Gallery in the District’s Shaw neighborhood.
His traditional artist friends have tried to get him to paint, well, traditionally. “I’d go crazy,” he says. “I can paint in 30 seconds. I’m not going to take two weeks. It’s not the way I do things. I’ve never had even one dot of art training in any way whatsoever.”
Now 70, Hirsh has found his calling, if not made his fortune, from this mix of math and art. He works at it while not tending to his other gig, as CEO of CryoBioPhysica, a company he founded that sells chemicals to research scientists in the field of molecular biology. His partner lives in Bulgaria and comes here every several months to mix the chemicals at a Germantown lab.
Orders for the chemicals come in over the phone and online, and Hirsh’s artwork time is often interrupted by customers eager to purchase his magic elixirs, if not his fractal images. His artwork starts at $2,800 for a framed 3-by-4-foot picture at theabstractgardener.com, less for smaller sizes. “Fine art is one of the poorest ways in the world to make money,” he says. “But, absolutely, I adore it.”