Christie’s Is Still Betting on NFTs, Preps Sale With Pioneering Artist Robert Alice

The artist has also edited a luxe Taschen book on the history of the medium.

Sample Output, Robert Alice, SOURCE [ON NFTs], 2024 © Robert Alice, All Rights Reserved

If it has been a while since the letters “NFT” cropped up anywhere on your art world radar, you are not alone.

It has been nearly three years since digital art, in the form of non-fungible tokens, stormed the international art market, surged to peak levels, and then crashed.

Christie’s is now revisiting the category with a major initiative that it describes in press materials as a “full circle” moment. The house is holding a sale of digital art on March 12, with 400 works by pioneer Robert Alice—the first artist to have an NFT sold by the house, predating even the auction of Beeple’s Everydays—The First 5,000 Days, which made a gobsmacking $69.3 million in 2021.

Alice’s works, titled SOURCE [On NFTs], are visually stunning (and somewhat evocative of art star Mark Bradford), rendered in Day-Glo colors via a methodology that aims to distill the pre-history of NFTs into large color fields.

Meanwhile, luxury art publisher Taschen has just released a massive 600-page tome, On NFTs, edited by Alice. The book explores digital art’s evolution, and it is being touted as the first serious history of the medium. Taschen toasted its publication last night at its store in Paris, where the NFT Paris conference is underway.

On NFTs by Robert Alice . Image courtesy Taschen.

On NFTs by Robert Alice . Image courtesy Taschen.

“Robert Alice is an artist who Christie’s has had a long relationship with,” said Sebastian Sanchez, manager of digital art at the auction house, noting that the Christie’s sale of his NFT in 2020 as part of a sculpture “completely shattered the estimate at the time.”

The upcoming Alice sale, on March 12, will be the house’s first “on-chain generative art collection,” Sanchez said. Hosted on a “3.0” platform built specifically for digital art, the auction will have features that may surprise traditional art buyers.

For one, payment can only be made in crypto. Also, the event will proceed as a kind of Dutch auction, meaning that price of the works will begin high and then drop until all 400 have been sold. (If you want one: act fast.) While it’s “the standard,” in the digital art industry, Sanchez said, it marks the first time Christie’s is handling a sale this way.

Alice offered some more background on what sounds like a mind-bending project. The 400 works will be “auctioned and minted live on the block chain, uses an algorithm called NLP, or natural language processing, that is one of the backbones of machine-learning models and is adjacent to AI,” he said. “It’s a semantic algorithm that is good for categorizing text. It allows machines to understand not just the meaning of words but their semantics.”

Sample Output, Robert Alice, SOURCE [ON NFTs], 2024 © Robert Alice, All Rights Reserved (3).

Sample Output, Robert Alice, SOURCE [ON NFTs], 2024 © Robert Alice, All Rights Reserved (3).

The algorithm was trained on a wide range of subjects and texts—from Walter Benjamin to Seth Siegelaub’s Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer And Sale Agreement—to find the semantic key words or “soul of the texts,” Alice said. These source materials are then “fed in” to an algorithm which generates new text phrases that the artist uses to create the sprawling, vibrant works.

That creation process parallels dynamics in the NFT space, which draws from lots of different histories, Alice said, ticking off “libertarianism, the history of money and how that has been engineered over time, the history of crypto anarchy.”

Alice was speaking to Artnet News via Zoom from London, where he was putting the final touches on a new studio—a far grander place than the one he had in his early days at an abandoned police station in South London, where his studio was a former evidence room, “literally the size of a desk,” he said.

How has he handled the volatile ups and downs of the NFT space and crypto over the years? “You learn to live with it,” he said. “When the consensus on a subject is WTF?, that is usually the most interesting place to be. No one tells us that.”

Discussing Alice’s multi-hyphenate roles as artist, writer, and curator, publisher Marlene Taschen told Artnet News in a phone interview, “It gave me a lot of confidence because he has an art-historical background, is an artist, and a curator. He has many facets.”

Sample Output, Robert Alice, SOURCE [ON NFTs], 2024 © Robert Alice, All Rights Reserved

Sample Output, Robert Alice, SOURCE [ON NFTs], 2024 © Robert Alice, All Rights Reserved

In another first, Taschen is accepting cryptocurrency through its website for sales of On NFTs, which is available in a numbered “hard code” edition, a “collector’s edition,” and 100 “arts editions,” which features four limited-edition pieces—a signed print and, naturally, an accompanying NFT—by different artists, including Refik Anadol.

Taschen described the two-and-a-half year effort of creating the book as a “continuous, organic, and informative process.”

“It’s kind of co-curated,” Taschen said, explaining that Alice “approached about 30 artists and asked for their recommendations. It’s quite democratic, an inspiring group effort.”

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