From Crypto To Christie’s: How Beeple Put Digital Art On The Map—And Then Catalyzed Its Market
After breaking Crypto Art records in December, Beeple will become the first artist to auction a purely digital, NFT-backed artwork at a major auction house, which will be open for bidding Feb. 25 - Ma
This story originally appeared on Forbes.
For many, the weekend of Dec. 11-13 was just another December weekend, but for digital artist Mike Winkelmann—better known as “Beeple” or @beeple_crap—it was one that would forever change his life.
“It was very surreal, luckily my family was there. I think I honestly was in shock,” Winkelmann said in an interview with the author. “It took quite a while to process; I’m not even sure I have now. Afterwards it was like, ‘Oh cool, that went well,’ and it took weeks for it to sink in that, no...it went insanely well.”
That weekend, Beeple sold 20 of his digital artworks for $3.5M through a series of sales on Nifty Gateway, a marketplace for limited-edition art and collectibles backed by what are called nonfungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs will be described in further detail below, but from a high level it’s just important to know that they function as digital signatures that authenticate the origin of a given thing (yes, on the blockchain). These “things” tend to be digital files, but they can undergird physical objects as well. In fact, for Beeple’s first sale—“open editions” of three pieces cheekily titled Bull Run, Infected, and Into The Ether—the final product was essentially physical. Each would arrive for buyers as “interface-free, always-on physical artifact[s] of the NFT featuring a signed, numbered titanium backplate with hidden authentication markers” along with an “authentic Beeple hair sample.”
These pieces were priced at $969. Because all three were open editions, however many were snagged during the allotted five-minute window would subsequently have to be produced by the artist.
“I was thinking we’d see 100 to maybe 200 that would sell, Winkelmann said. “But then that it was 600.”
Those 600 artworks sold over the course of five minutes amounted to $582k in sales for the artist—on only the first of a three-night sequence—so one might assume Beeple would have been jubilant.
“Honestly that night I did not feel good,” Winkelmann said. “I was just thinking like, ‘How the f--- are we going to make 600 boxes in six to eight weeks?’”
Who is Beeple?
The above gets at something core about the artist, who is something of a legend in digital art circles but will also be a new name for the many who discover his work on the occasion of this announcement from Christie’s—which is putting his work up as a standalone auction concurrent with its “First Open | Online,” a lot that includes art by Andy Warhol.
Speaking to friends, colleagues, and those close to his work, some themes emerge: he’s fearless, he’s no stranger to vulgarity or twisted humor, and he’s deeply invested in his community. Instead of rejoicing at the fresh $582k in his bank account, Winkelmann’s first concern was how he’d deliver what he promised to a community that trusted him.
“Mike’s a very generous artist, first and foremost; if you speak with anybody that’ll be the first thing that they say about him,” said Lady PheOnix, a curator of digital art and cofounder of Universe Contemporary, a Crypto Art consultancy. “He’s open about his practice, his process, and what it’s taken for him to ‘make it.’”
And making it has been a long road for Beeple. In many ways, his trajectory—and the artist it forged—reflects the rebellious, no-holds, and unfussy ethos of digital art. He grew up in Wisconsin, with no plans of becoming a professional artist. He instead pursued a degree in Computer Science in the hopes of becoming a programmer—but while in college found himself diverting ever more effort to creative endeavors.
“Halfway through I realized I was spending way more time making little weird abstract digital art and digital short films,” Winkelmann said. “I got through the degree, got a job doing web design, and in my free time kept making this Beeple stuff.”
Long before he had any sense he’d one day see market validation for his art or have an Instagram following of close to 2M people, Winkelmann’s practice as Beeple was his focus.
“It was always the thing I was trying the hardest at; what I was always putting most of my energy and thought into was the Beeple stuff,” Winkelmann said. “It was never the side thing. My day jobs and other work felt like the side things.”
Back in the early Aughts, digital art was far more niche than it even is today. Platforms like Instagram and YouTube didn’t exist yet; and even once they did, it would take years still for them to become viable distribution platforms for artists to build communities around their work.
“People were seeing digital art through VFX in movies, but the more experimental digital art that I was seeing on the Internet, mainly through different people’s websites and the stuff I was making, was just not that popular and really hard to find,” Winkelmann said.
It is from within this outsider, underground approach that Winkelmann established a practice that would come to form the foundation of his ascent to digital art name-brand: Everydays. This origin story even has a precise date: May 1, 2007.
‘Everydays’ & Creative Commons
As the name indicates, “everydays” involve publishing a piece of art every single day, and Beeple has done so for coming up on 14 years. Importantly, he claims that he has never banked any work in advance, even when under tight deadlines for other work, while seriously ill, or during major life events like his engagement and the birth of his children. The artwork going up for auction at Christie’s, Everydays – The First 5000 Days, is actually a sort of meta-work that assembles the first 5,000 of these everydays into a single 316MB, 21,069 x 21,069-pixel file. These 5,000 pieces span May 1, 2007 - Jan. 7, 2021, and seeing them all arranged in one place offers a sense of just how extensive of an undertaking it has been.
The process, though, has been ad hoc and unfiltered, with some pieces taking many hours and others dashed off in a matter of minutes after his kids went to bed. The point for Winkelmann was to create a framework for himself to freely experiment with creative tools ranging from 3D software to photography. It provides the creative constraint of a deadline; with each “day” closing at midnight.
Beeple’s audience has swelled particularly in the past half-decade, as his Everydays have exhibited an impulse toward commentary on current events and the political.
“I look at these almost as political cartoons, but instead of, you know, a sketch, it's like, ‘What can we do with the most advanced digital tools?’” Winkelmann said.
Because he produces these using 3D creation software every single day, he’s built up a library of assets that he can then reappropriate into new work—lending a level of quality that belies the fact that these pieces may have only taken an hour to generate. This is also how he’s able to publish 3D artwork that engages directly with political moments and memes in real time.
“So, you know, Mike Pence has a fly on his head during the debates,” Winkelmann said. “And an hour later I can have a picture with Mike Pence standing on top of the White House surrounded by a bunch of giant flies, and he’s lord of the flies.”
Contemporaries see this as Beeple’s way of engaging with audiences in a way that other artists—particularly those steeped in conventional modes, philosophies, and practices—cannot.
“He’s outspoken, he’s funny, he has a dark and twisted sense of humor, and he’s able to tell the truth using hyperbole as a brush,” PheOnix said. “He’s been able to invite people to a conversation through that approach. With his computer he’s painting these landscapes of reality that are a mixture of dystopian and hopeful—the hope comes through the humor.”
Though his everydays are now regarded as having this political, sometimes vulgar tone, earlier phases could be quite different. In his first year we find hand-drawn doodles, another year shows his early experiments while learning to use Adobe Illustrator, and other moments still become home for his fascination with Digital SLR cameras. The seeds for the current phase were planted when Winkelmann taught himself Cinema 4D—after which he made a move that would again alter the course of his career: offer up hundreds of VJ video clips to anyone via Creative Commons. The Electronic music scene in particular took notice.
“Those became very, very popular in the Electronic music world, so I started getting hit up for custom concert visuals,” Winkelmann said. “That led to a bunch of freelance work and being able to finally quit my job and just do that full-time.”
Since then, he’s produced video loops and music videos for artists including Avicii, Justin Bieber, Childish Gambino, Eminem, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and many others. He was also able to expand his practice to work with brands like Apple, Louis Vuitton, Magic Leap, Nike, and Space X. But while sustaining his work through commissions and design was a life improvement, Winkelmann still hadn’t found a way to sell his art on its own terms. That is, until he heeded the encouragement of a number of friends and colleagues to do NFT “drops” of some of his pieces.
Crypto Art and NFTs
It’s here that we need to rewind on Crypto Art and its brief history to better grasp why Beeple’s entrance became the historic event that it did.
Artists have been experimenting with blockchain technologies in their practices since 2011, and decentralized collectible marketplaces have existed since CryptoKitties launched in 2017, but the cumulative effects of Covid-19, a growing awareness of NFTs among artists and creators, and a bull run in cryptocurrencies intersected to cast 2020 as the year many would take note of NFTs as a viable path for digital artists to sell their work and build community. (With regard to blockchain, the relevant point to note here is simply that it’s a technology that facilitates accountability and transparency between people. A more detailed primer can be found here.)
In essence, what these marketplaces allow artists to do is “mint” a given artwork or collectible good on the blockchain with a nonfungible token. To be “fungible” refers to the interchangeability of a good—$5 is identical to any other $5 bill. It’s worth $5 regardless of whether it’s a bill in your hand or numbers in your bank account. It can be subdivided into, say, three $1 bills and eight quarters, or any other configuration therein, and it functions just the same. When a token is nonfungible, then, it is distinct from any other token and it cannot be subdivided. In other words: it is, by design, totally unique. It is in this way that NFTs create scarcity—even for digital files that on their own are infinitely replicable.
“I use the example of a physical trading card,” said Ryoma Ito, head of marketing at MakersPlace, the crypto art marketplace that collaborated with Christie’s in setting up the Beeple auction and generated the NFT for First 5000 Days. “They’re accessible by the millions, but when, say, Steph Curry comes along and autographs one of those cards it will increase the value as long as there’s a way to authenticate that signature. When a creator publishes to blockchain, they’re permanently associating their signature with that piece. It’s just a digital signature rather than a physical autograph.”
These tokens are backed by “smart contracts,” or contracts that are written into the token from the outset. The terms of these contracts will execute automatically from then on. Furthermore, these contracts specify what aspects of a given token are allowed to be changed. Thus, an artist can apply her unique digital signature as a point of origin, but the token can be sold to other collectors, and the blockchain will reflect this change in ownership.
“Blockchain allows us to apply supply and demand and economic forces to the arena of digital art,” said Tyler Winklevoss, cofounder and CEO of Gemini, the cryptocurrency exchange that acquired Nifty Gateway in 2019, in an interview with the author. “Now you can purchase an asset and actually own digital art. Imagine taking supply and demand out of the fine art world; it wouldn’t be the same. There’s a scarcity to a Warhol—and as a result, it can be considered precious and go to auction at Christie’s.”
Notably, artists can write themselves into these contracts for a work’s secondary market, allowing them to earn whatever percentage they establish upon every subsequent sale in perpetuity. Thus, if her career skyrockets and her work balloons in value, she’ll see benefit financially in perpetuity. Since Beeple’s record-breaking sales in December, for example, he’s seen his pieces sold in the secondary market to the tune of another $1.7M (collectively). So, for example, if the contracts in his tokens allocate 5% of every sale to him, that would mean he has already seen an additional $85k automatically flow into his account.
Another role NFTs play is warding against fakes. Sure, anyone might be able to rip a digital file, but without the NFT asserting its provenance, it won’t have the same value as something that can prove it is an “original.”
Artists had begun to find financial success through crypto art platforms like MakersPlace, Nifty Gateway, Rarible, and SuperRare in 2018, 2019, and early 2020, but the market was still regarded as fairly underground, even in tech circles.
Enter: a global pandemic disrupts every industry. Many millions of people are suddenly forced to spend more time at home, and treat the digital as “real.” Crypto Art surged. In October, Christie's sold an NFT-backed artwork for $130k. For Nifty Gateway, new sales kept breaking records set just weeks before as the year progressed.
“The community had built to this point where it was ready for someone like Mike to step in,” Winklevoss said. “When Mozart came around, the idiom and the vocabulary of classical music was at its height and ready for his genius. He came into the golden era of the genre, and he was Mozart; [Crypto Art] was a building movement—and Beeple’s a giant. Given his background, given the type of artist he is, it was this perfect marriage of his hard work, experience, and journey. He’s the perfect artist to put the NFT medium on the map.”
The Everydays – The First 5000 Days Auction
While the crypto art market was heating up in 2020, MakersPlace and Christie’s entered into discussions about the prospect of auctioning a fully digital NFT artwork.
“We knew this was going to be a big milestone, so we asked ourselves who we’d want to represent NFTs on this Christie’s lot: ‘Who’s going to be this standout artist to get that message out the right way?’” Ito said. “We wanted to tap into what would be best for the ecosystem, and Beeple seemed like the perfect choice.”
Christie’s decided to move forward with the idea on the strength of Beeple’s proposed artwork, with MakersPlace handling the blockchain back end.
“We realized that this was the perfect way to introduce our audience to the medium,” said Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Specialist Noah Davis in an interview with the author. “Mike's practice of making these ‘Everydays’ every single day is this herculean, populist, and deeply American creative endeavor. To see them all laid out in this expansive, monolithic mosaic of his work—the idea that you could zoom in and individually experience each one of these artworks—it almost treats his Instagram profile like a Duchampian readymade that he could just plucked out, but [with The First 5000 Days] he’s organized it and arranged it. That dynamic artwork is really what sold me, because it points to this limitless capacity for a digital-only NFT artwork to do something that's unique.”
Davis cites a unique relationship that digital art has with how it is produced, observed, and collected. The First 5000 Days exhibits a maximalism—both as a final product and the underlying artistic process—that could only exist digitally.
“There is an inherent limitation in painting and sculpture—anything that can be put in a frame and on your wall—in their objecthood,” Davis said. “With digital artists working in this new field of NFTs, there's something intangible and completely beyond the scope of definition when it comes to defining the ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ of an artwork. You can be as as restrictive with the media as you want—there are some artists who who are making NFTs that are just several pixels—and then you have this maximal, endless kind of approach that that we see with Beeple, where he's got this project that conceivably could go on until the end of his life.”
The individual everydays are not arranged chronologically in The First 5000 Days, instead they are woven together aesthetically and conceptually. Keen viewers and sleuths might be able to spot narrative connections throughout, ranging from the personal to the public.
“It's a mix of a journal of the world and a journal of my life, and my family's life, throughout the last 13 years,” Winkelmann said.
Everydays – The First 5000 Days opens for bidding from Feb. 25 and closes March 11. Bidding will open at $100, with the estimate listed as “unknown.” The auction will be a standalone for technical purposes, but has been intentionally positioned concurrent with “First Open | Online.” After close to a year developing remote solutions to continue functioning during a pandemic, Christie’s has now developed the technical capabilities to put digital artworks up for auction with the same care traditional works receive in physical settings.
“All of the digital enhancements that we made over the last year to improve the way people experience art from home was leading up to something like this,” said Rebecca Riegelhaupt, Christie’s AVP and senior public relations manager of Post-War and Contemporary Art, in an interview with the author. “Now we have all the systems in place to zoom in to that degree [needed to appreciate The First 5000 Days] and psychologically prepare people for this type of artwork.”
Among the pieces in this first lot will be work by Andy Warhol. In many ways, there’s a fitting connection between the two artists.
“There's a nice rhyme between Warhol and Beeple,” Davis said. “There's of course the engagement with pop culture. Warhol’s fascination with heroes and heroines, pop icons and tragedy, death and disaster—that truly morbid fascination—you see that in a lot of Beeple’s work too, especially when he's dealing with pop culture icons, whether that’s Jeff Bezos or Kim Jong-un or Buzz Lightyear. They are all equally accessible targets and interesting points just to plot on a map, he is very similar to Warhol in that way.”
Beyond the conceptual echoes, the two artists’ careers also speak to the relationship that mold-breaking artists have with how they pay the bills.
“When you look at Warhol’s career trajectory—that he was an illustrator before he became a quote-unquote fine artist ... it’s something you see with plenty of these pioneers in the digital art world, where they're making most of their money in a sort of gig economy way, where they're taking on jobs illustrating, and they efface their own artistic personality to become the face of a brand,” Davis said. “That's an exercise that they can pull off perfectly well, but at the end of the day, their own artwork exists completely separately. This NFT moment that we're having is allowing these artists to transition into a fully personal mode of expression that can also be financially valuable for them. And that's the same thing that happened with Warhol transitioning out of his job as an illustrator and working in the fashion world.”
In this way Crypto Art today in some ways also echoes Street Art in decades past; it’s an outside force with the potential to both disrupt fine art and become a major force within it.
“We see this as a pivotal moment for the future of New Media and even the practice of collecting itself,” Davis said. “Not unlike the advent of Street Art as a blue chip collecting category, NFT-based art is on the threshold of becoming the next ingeniously disruptive force in the art market.”
Ito is hopeful that the imprimatur of a legacy fine art institution will further extend the awareness of NFTs as a means for digital artists to establish their practice as worthy of investment in both the short and long term.
“Having Christie’s come on-board and validate that these digital assets have real value is huge,” Ito said. “For the longest time digital creators have struggled to monetize their work. NFTs are an avenue to provide protection and authentication for digital artworks. This [auction] is the extra stamp that’s going to push this space into the spotlight.”
Winklevoss sees this as a natural next step for the art market.
“Art can mean a physical canvas in a gallery in Chelsea, but it’s also moved out into nature and installations, it’s moved to street corners and billboards—and now it’s moving onto the blockchain, the gallery of the Internet,” Winklevoss said.
Winkelmann, meanwhile, already has his eyes on the future. Borrowing a tactic he learned from the fashion world while working with Louis Vuitton, he’s planning “seasons” for his future drops, with a range of offerings and editions. While high-end artworks are certainly in the plan, he’s also excited to use his newfound role as bellwether of the digital art world to give back to his community. Having already witnessed the value of his work surge as much as 50x in the secondary market following his December sales, he plans to put up limited quantities of art that is intentionally underpriced.
I ask him if it’s possible he’d take that as low as $1 again, something he did amid his Nifty Gateway sales. He answers enthusiastically in the affirmative, and acknowledges that he’ll in effect be “giving away” $1M or more—and why.
“To be honest, I'm super excited about that,” Winkelmann said. “I wouldn't be in this position if it weren’t for people liking and sharing and being all, ‘Check out this guy Beeple!’ That's why I'm able to f------ do this, you know what I mean? So it's something that I'm honored to be in a position to do.”