On the eve of his New York solo debut, artist Mike Winkelmann, better known as the NFT star Beeple, was doing the final rounds at the Jack Hanley Gallery in Tribeca.
Things were looking good: His show, “Beeple: Uncertain Future,” was all set up, filling the gallery with violent, apocalyptic images of stacked Amazon shipping containers, zombie-like factory workers and huge severed heads of Jeff Bezos and Marc Zuckerberg. All 13 prints and paintings had been reserved, with prices ranging from approximately $75,000 to $300,000.
The show opens almost exactly one year after Beeple’s NFT, Daily: first 5,000 days, grossed $69.3 million at Christie’s, propelling the artist to overnight stardom and setting off the NFT tsunami. During this year, Winkelmann became, to put it plainly, rich and famous.
Winkelmann’s exhibition, which opens today, is a highly anticipated if somewhat polarizing event. More than 1,100 people responded positively to the opening reception in just 24 hours, leading the normally low-key gallery to hire security guards and props.
The art world has been more critical. Artnet News art critic Ben Davis was not impressed after reviewing the 5,000 images in The first 5,000 days. Some artists represented by Hanley quit in protest, demanding that their names be removed from the gallery’s website before the opening. (“They haven’t even seen the show!” Hanley said. “It’s not even NFT!”)
Winkelmann, 40, navigates this new landscape with confidence and intelligence, while remaining grounded in the digital art community of which he has been a part for two decades. He continued to create a daily art project as part of his ongoing “Everydays” series., and post everyone on social media to its 2.5 million Instagram followers and nearly 600,000 Twitter followers (last week the work focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine). Much of the proceeds from his art sales have returned to his studio and he plans to donate some of his proceeds from the Jack Hanley exhibit to charities fighting the evils of Big Tech, including conservation. , privacy and adolescent suicide.
His newfound wealth gave Winkelmann the freedom to dream big. His current studio, the third he has created in a year, is a 50,000 square foot building in an industrial park in Charleston, South Carolina. His younger brother Scott Winkelmann left his job at Boeing two years ago, where he was responsible for the design engineering team, to lead Operation Beeple. The team now consists of 16 full-time employees, including several Boeing aerospace engineers.
“These guys left because they wanted to do something different,” Scott Winkelmann said. There are also digital artists, software engineers, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers.
They worked on pieces mixing physical and digital art, like A human, a kinetic video sculpture made up of four vertical screens showing a man in a silver spacesuit parading through a desolate landscape. (Winkelmann recently updated the man’s uniform to appear in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and he’s now walking through a war zone.) The artwork’s owner, crypto investor Ryan Zurrer, said he was in talks with museums to exhibit the sculpture.
“I constantly focus not on what’s interesting today, but on what art will look like 100 years from now,” said Mike Winkelmann in a recent interview with Artnet News. “I feel super, super lucky to have a team around me that I can say, ‘Hmm guys, let’s do this?’ And, and they’re like, ‘Okay, we’ll find out.'”
The specific plans are top secret, but the general direction is ambitious. Half of the studio space, approximately 25,000 square feet, will be divided into two exhibition areas, each with 20-foot-high ceilings. “We’ll be able to do the work on the spot and show it immediately,” Winkelmann said.
One of the exhibition spaces will be dedicated to a survey of Winkelmann’s works over the past 20 years, as well as the history of the digital art and design community he has traversed.
The second space will be experiential, with high-end cameras and projectors.
“Like an immersive Van Gogh exhibit,” Winkelmann said. “It will be a place where I can do whatever I want. It will look very much like a high-end gallery or museum when we’re done. Being able to test ideas there for me is super exciting and something I could never have dreamed of.
His family is on board to make this happen. In January, when Winkelmann had Covid-19, his mother led the way on the job site. His father recently set up a health care plan for employees. His wife takes care of finances and infrastructure. And his brother Scott runs the whole operation. They all came to New York to see Winkelmann’s A human sold for $29 million at Christie’s in November.
“So it’s kind of a family operation at this point,” Winkelmann said. “Which is ironic because they were never interested in art. As if there had never been a mention of art. And now my mom knows more about NFTs than you do.
You won’t see any NFT or screen art at the Jack Hanley Gallery (although every piece of artwork is saved on the blockchain). Instead, the works are painted and printed on traditional mediums: oil on canvas, pastel on paper. There are large-scale engravings, almost 7 feet high and 11 feet wide.
“The theme of this show is our relationship with technology,” Winkelmann said. “Again, with a bit of humor and satire, but looking at the outsized influence that very few companies, you know, Google, Facebook and Amazon have on our daily lives. Zuckerberg could wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, let’s do X, Y, Z,” and it will affect the whole world almost immediately. And so I think we need to take a step back and think about some of these things.
The focus on traditional arts media is intentional “to help people get past all the other stuff and look at the images for themselves,” Winkelmann said. “Does it really matter if I paint these things or if they were done on a computer? I’m much more interested in what you’re trying to express with this than what tools you used to get to this place.
You might be wondering if Winkelmann took a brush to paint his works. The answer is no, they were made by the studio. “I can tell you that I am not a painter,” he says.
In fact, he’s so new to the mainstream art world that “I’ve never even attended a gallery vernissage,” he said, “let alone my vernissage.”
He spends a lot of time dreaming. In his office, he went from two to six TV screens, each tuned to a different news channel, on mute.
“It’s like a window of information about what’s going on in the world, which has been quite depressing,” he said. Over the past week, as news about Russia’s war in Ukraine dominated the news cycle, its “Daily” focused on the conflict: starting with a tattered yellow and blue Ukrainian flag in the middle of the ruins, titled alongside Ukraine. As the fighting intensified and the human toll rose, he posted Drowningrepresenting the head of Vladimir Putin, submerged in a sea of blood.
“At times like this, I wonder how not to comment?” says Winkelmann. “I feel lucky to have this as some sort of outlet, mostly because it has nothing to do with money or sales or collectors or any shit like that. It’s just a way for me to express what I feel, that’s the whole point of art.
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