Whilst digital artists have found ways into the art world, often through installations, happenings, and experiences utilising digital technology and connectivity, a vast market of digital painters and artists who create more traditional forms of art with digital tools, have always been held back by the virtual nature of their work. With no original to sell or exhibit, much of this sector of digital art has remained in consideration as commercial art, produced for commissions, art prints, or illustrations, rather than for any high minded artistic ideals.
The emergence of NFTs has allowed that pattern to shift; there are many interesting technological things you can do with NFTs, but the market has been dominated by digitally created images, with one-time “commercial” artists, and collectives of artists, suddenly able to command vast sums for their contemporary visions. These are a few of the NFT art creators and creations that have consistently reached the highest auction bids, and the widest attention.
Cryptopunks by software developers and digital artists Larva Labs
Larva Labs are Matt Hall and John Watkinson; a two man team of Canadian software developers who created Cryptopunks as an experimental project in the then-emerging field of NFT art.
Cryptopunks are simple pixel art pictures of character faces, created by a computer algorithm so that each is unique, and registered as an NFT on the Ethereum blockchain. Each of the 10,000 character generations had a number of variable traits, such as hairstyles, eye colour, and props like glasses and hats, some of which were rarer than others; 9 of the characters are aliens for example. Very quickly cryptocurrency traders who had picked up a free cryptopunk, started to get interested in trading them to gain ownership of the rarest and most unique.
They became status symbols for many crypto traders, and enjoyed incredible gains in value as the cryptocurrency market went through a boom and wider attention began to come to NFTs; many might argue that Cryptopunks brought attention to NFT art rather than the other way round. At a Sotheby’s auction in summer 2021, a single cryptopunk sold to a buyer for almost $12 million, so whilst traditionalists might ask whether they are truly art, the NFT market is certainly happy to consider them as such.
Pak, the ‘unknown’ NFT artist
Whilst Pak is often described as an anonymous enigma, a little searching on the Internet reveals him to be Murat Pak, a Turkish digital artist who has been creating work for over 20 years, both individually and through his studio Undream.
His pieces tend to focus on simple, 3D rendered shapes floating in a black void, which then animate, morph, and otherwise change through animations or other processes. Metarift offers a metallic looking object which morphs and shifts through a looping animation, complexity offers a white featureless cube which begins to reshape and transform itself similarly to a Rubik’s cube, whilst The Switch offers a white cuboid structure, with the mysterious promise attached that it will change at some point in the future; no one knows what to.
In many ways one of Pak’s most interesting works was also one of his most basic, and reinvigorated thoughts and discussions from the Modern Art period as to what exactly constitutes art. The Pixel is, quite literally, a single grey pixel; it does nothing, and certainly could have been created by anyone, however this pixel was created by Pak, and that was enough to land a price of over $1.3 million.
Beeple, the $69 million man
Probably the most famous individual NFT artist, Beeple is digital artist Mike Winkelmann, who has steadily built an online following for his work since beginning to create an artwork every day, since May 2007.
These “Everydays” vary greatly in style and content; some are cartoonish and comedic, others more cyberpunk dystopia, many offer themes involving politics, celebrity, and pop culture. One piece titled Crossroads, featuring a giant, baby-like Donald Trump daubed with graffiti such as “loser” and “proud boy” lays face down as normally sized people walk past, a Twitter-like blue bird sits on top of the Trump baby whistling a clown emoji; the piece sold for $6.6 million.
But Beeple truly hit the headlines when he put together a compilation mosaic image featuring 5000 of his Everydays artworks, putting it up for auction through Christies; it sold for $69 million, making Beeple one of the most expensive living artists, alongside Jasper Johns, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and David Hockney.