A cavalry of crypto enthusiasts funneled into Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood on Thursday evening, waiting outside Jack Hanley Gallery for a chance to meet their online art messiah in the flesh. In the mix were celebrities like Jimmy Fallon. It was a rock-star welcome for Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, who was putting the final touches on his images of decapitated tech executives and haywire science experiments.
Last year Winkelmann, 40, introduced the world to NFTs (or nonfungible tokens), starting with the $69 million sale of his “Everydays — The First 5000 Days” at a Christie’s auction, which set cryptocurrency on a crash course with culture. Now he is seeking approval from the art establishment with his first gallery exhibition, called “Uncertain Future,” which intends to convince critics that his work has more substance than what they see onscreen.
“I’m kind of in a weird position,” Winkelmann said at the gallery that night. “I’m an outsider in the traditional art world. I didn’t really feel like that until recently because I have been making this work in the digital art community for a very long time.”
So Winkelmann has produced an exhibition on walls instead of screens, with 13 paintings and prints that imagine an apocalyptic future where companies like Amazon and Facebook are reduced to rubble, their founders vessels of vanity and greed. Prices range from $75,000 to $300,000. Not that any of the hundreds who attended had a chance of buying a Beeple on Thursday night; the artworks were all on reserve, purchased, by the time the doors opened.
Still, Winkelmann remains bullish on NFTs, pairing each physical work with a blockchain-based collectible for authentication purposes. He said that much of his fortune made off the metaverse has gone back into his art.
Winkelmann recently moved into a new 50,000-square-foot industrial studio space in Charleston, S.C. His younger brother, Scott Winkelmann, quit his job at the airplane company Boeing to oversee the 16 full-time employees responsible for turning the artist’s dreams into realities. (The staff includes several aerospace engineers from Boeing.) Other family members have joined the team, including the sons’ mother, who has an office within the studio complex.
Several advisers from the worlds of crypto and culture have also joined team Beeple, including Jehan Chu, a blockchain venture capitalist and NFT collector who attended the opening.
“Right now, there are two art worlds,” said Chu, adding that he hoped more museums and galleries would soften to digital art. “The traditional art world is still learning about the fundamental values of the NFT space.”
Development for the exhibition started nine months ago with Winkelmann calling the gallerist Jack Hanley. “I was initially suspicious of all the hype,” the dealer said. “But Mike has a really cleareyed critique of big tech. He’s also very funny.”
Hanley has spent the last 35 years championing outsider artists like Raymond Pettibon and Peter Saul, who slowly gained institutional acceptance after being dismissed for lacking a formal arts education. Winkelmann could be the next generation, the dealer said, though not everyone at the gallery agrees; Hanley confirmed that some artists he represents quit in protest of the Beeple exhibition, as Artnet News had reported.
Fans say that Winkelmann’s ability to shock the establishment is part of his appeal.
“The essence of Beeple is kind of between a satirist and a troll,” said Simon Glenn, 26, a web developer who was admiring a print that imagines a future Netflix reduced to broken television sets and rusting cargo containers. “It’s asking what the company would be like without its people.”
Toward the back of the gallery, the artist Julia Sinelnikova, 32, was admiring a large painting that features the disfigured head of Jeff Bezos quarantined within an “excess testosterone dump.” She appreciated that Winkelmann was willing to critique the leaders of an industry that has supported his work.
“I had been looking at Beeple’s work for a long time just as entertainment,” Sinelnikova said, squinting at the artist’s phallus-filled portrait of the Amazon founder. “But the works here in the gallery are much more beautiful and detailed than I expected.”