Crypto Heavyweights Made Appearances at Art Basel, But NFTs Were Scarce as Bitcoin Continues Its Plunge
'We’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution,' said one dealer.
As a new crypto winter set in just in time for Art Basel, there was a lot of non-fungible gossip (and a few sales!) to report from the world’s preeminent art fair, which opened this week.
Along with the usual throng of art glitterati, several major ballers of the NFT and crypto art scenes made appearances at the fair this year. Ryan Zurrer, founder of Dialectic.ch and collector of works by the likes of Beeple and Refik Anadol, was spotted strolling the main fair. And Beeple himself could be seen perusing the fair with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli, where his very first sculpture, Human One, is currently on view. Meanwhile, Niclas Castello, progenitor of the infamous gold cube turned Castello Coin cryptocurrency, spent an evening huddled at a corner table at Les Trois Rois.
Unlike Art Basel Miami Beach in December, which felt more like an NFT party than a traditional art fair, the Swiss edition felt markedly less bullish on NFTs.
That sense is increasingly pervasive around the world. After reaching a peak of $69,000 in November 2021, the price of Bitcoin plummeted to as low as $20,080 yesterday, the third day of the fair. Ethereum, the cryptocurrency most associated with NFTs, has not fared much better, dipping to as low as $1,030 during Art Basel, a far cry from its previous high of $4,800. Both major cryptocurrencies are down nearly 70 percent since April.
The boom-bust cycle of the crypto market notwithstanding, it appears the art market is finally starting to come around to digital (and “phygital”) art.
At the main fair, the Cologne- and Berlin-based Galerie Nagel Draxler, which famously sold the first NFT ever at Art Basel last year (a work by Olive Allen), toned down its crypto offerings by pairing them with traditional art. The Nagel Draxler booth presented two crypto-related artworks, including three NFTs by Kenny Schachter.
Schachter was spotted in green and yellow striped Adidas track pants wandering the fair and wondering aloud what the collapsing price of Ethereum would mean for the NFTs he had on offer. Schachter’s Duchamp wallpaper, which is available as an NFT, was now likely not even worth the paper it was printed on, a bit like the German Deutschmark in 1923 (also used as wallpaper).
Meanwhile, Kevin Abosch, the Irish conceptual artist and crypto art pioneer, sold a painting (without an NFT) called Crypto is a Scam, an acrylic graphite on canvas that fetched €75,000 ($79,000), which went to an unnamed buyer from the crypto space, according to gallery co-founder Saskia Draxler.
Draxler added that she felt the fair was becoming more welcoming to collectors of digital art, as well as works of traditional art that reference crypto themes. “We are trying to merge the two worlds,” Draxler said. “Soon enough everyone will have a wallet for digital assets, but right now I feel like we’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, and Art Basel is and always will be a pulse for many of these changes.”
Jeffrey Deitch, in a massive three-level booth, showed a work by Refik Anadol, the NFT star known for A.I.-driven data painting and several blockbuster sales at Christie’s recently. It was not an NFT, however, but a digital A.I. painting of ocean currents, and Deitch was accepting fiat currency only.
Upstairs, a single NFT by Austin Lee was displayed on a screen alongside a playful resin sculpture. It was priced at €50,000 ($53,000) and remained unsold by day three of the fair.
Deitch himself was curt when it came to discussing the impact of NFTs on the art market. “I’m not interested in NFTs, I’m only interested in significant art,” he said.
Pace had undoubtedly the biggest coup de grace in the NFT marketplace during Art Basel, having sold several versions of Jeff Koons’s Moon Phases NFT project, each priced at $2 million and come with a sculptural accompaniment.
Outside the Unlimited section, a show-stopping booth by Tezos featured Herbert W. Franke, the 95-year-old pioneer of generative art, whose work was presented alongside younger artists like Aleksandra Jovanic, Ryan Bell, Eko33, and Sam Tsao. Franke’s work, titled MONDRIAN (1979), was initially developed as a dynamic program for image and sound for Texas Instruments.
The work permits the selective construction of individual images using a dynamic sequence in which one can interactively intervene at any time. The program also made it possible, way back in the late 1970s, to design a dynamic image that can change constantly on its own and whose algorithms run under random influence. The work stands as one of the earliest forms of natively digital generative art. Though none of the work in the Tezos booth was for sale, it provided a useful showcase for educating visitors on the rich history of new media art.
The art critic and curator Anika Meier told Artnet News how impressed she was with the Tezos presentation in Basel. “Herbert W. Franke is a universal genius,” she said. “His pioneering spirit made him one of the first computer artists who was more than six decades ahead of his time.”
Meier is also helping the London-based art platform Circa and Tezos organize Marina Abramovic’s first NFT, which will be released this summer. (Details on it will be presented June 18, at an artist talk between Abramovic and Circa’s artistic director, Josef O’Connor, in the Tezos stand.)
Over at the nearby Volta fair, the Artsted platform presented an NFT bar that featured works by the likes of Francesco Vullo, Xiaoling Jin, Domiano Fasso, and Maria Giovanna Morelli.
“We decided to construct the NFT bar as a space where people can feel comfortable and just hang out and relax,” said Maryna Rybakova, CEO and founder of Artsted. She added that the display was not a commercial endeavor, rather it stood as a place where new collectors could come and learn about NFTs.
“As part of Generation Z, I am convinced that the future of the world is digital. The next generation of collectors are at the vanguard of this new technology,” she said. “Resources are being transferred from the ‘old’ market to the ‘new’ market.”
George Bak, founder of the Tokengate NFT advisory firm and co-founder of the recent NFT Art Day in Zurich (co-organized with E.A.T. / Engadin Art Talks’ founder Katharina de Vaivre), was also seeing perusing the fair with Tom Rieder, co-founder of the sales platform elementum.art. Rieder noted that while the crypto scene in Switzerland is primarily centered around Zug, the ecosystem around NFTs and platforms are starting to expand throughout Switzerland. Rieder told Artnet News that “NFTs are starting to make headway in Basel, though I think New York and Miami are still at the top of the pile when it comes to buying and selling digital artifacts.”
Bak, who is also organizing a sale of generative NFTs at Phillips in July, said that he is noticing a move toward “phygitals,” a neologism referring to works that have both an NFT (digital component) alongside a physical one. Sculptures that also include NFTs, for example, are Koons’s Moon Landing (2022) and Beeple’s Human One. Bak said that despite the recent move toward phygital works, he decided to purchase an NFT of generative art from the Squiggles series by Erick Calderon, founder of Art Blocks, in the booth of V Over M digital booth on display at the Design Miami fair in Basel.
The V Over M digital booth, which partnered with Infinite Objects for its presentation of the Art Blocks Chromie Squiggles, staged an installation of natively digital generative art. The design of the booth included wallpaper taken from Art Block’s source code, as well as 100 small digital screens mounted on four walls. Though the gallery was not willing to provide exact sale details, Adam Lindemann, the gallery’s owner, told Artnet News that they have had 20 requests for mints. “Overall, it’s been great, just ask Roger Federer—he loved them!” Lindemann said.
Joe Saavedra, founder of Infinite Objects, mostly agreed, saying that he thinks the NFT marketplace is trending toward digitally native content that has a strong presence in physical space too.
“When we partnered with Beeple on his second-ever drop on Nifty Gateway, we were exploring how including a physical twin alongside an NFT sale could help attract new collectors unfamiliar with blockchain,” he said. He added that while his initial concept was to create a product that “was a vessel for videos,” he was quick to point out that “the objects we make are immutable, just like the blockchain itself, meaning we’re in the business of creating scarcity, provenance, and making digital art collectible.”
Launched in 2019, Infinite Objects has so far done hundreds of projects with some of the world’s leading digital artists. Earlier this year it was responsible for constructing SuperRare’s pop-up gallery in New York and, on June 16, it launched an exclusive membership NFT. With Infinite Object’s revenue up 500 percent in the last year alone, backed by $6 million in seed funding from major players in the NFT space, including Dapper Labs founder Roham Gharegozlou, the sky doesn’t seem to be falling for companies like Infinite Objects.
With pictures of apes selling for tens of millions of dollars, Takashi Murakami’s NFTs crashing, and the recent descent into a crypto winter, what does the future hold for NFTs? And where do they stand in the pantheon of Art Basel? Judging by this year’s fair, perhaps the future is closer than we think. As well as a couple discounts, if you factor in the long, cold crypto winter.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Kenny Schachter’s pants were “rainbow colored” when in fact they were black with green and yellow stripes.
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