As art-world insiders flocked to the NADA Miami fair, Beeple and Peter Saul, two outsiders whose work has only recently been embraced by dealers and institutions, sat down for a conversation at the Bass museum. Saul and Beeple are separated by years, movement, character, and the medium in which they work. One produces Pop-inflected figurative paintings; the other makes NFTs that have, over the past year, sold for millions of dollars.
But one unexpected figure does appear in both of their works: Donald Trump, whose love of burgers intrigued the artists. Both Saul and Beeple take on Trump’s chaotic persona and amplify it, adding to it a kind of boyishness.
Their conversation, titled “Curator Culture, Beeple & Saul, 15 Minutes or Forever? Art in the Age of the NFT,” was moderated by collector Adam Lindemann, who asked both artists to talk about the more controversial aspects of their work. Saul, for his part, has a tendency to revel in the scandalous qualities of his work—he has, for example, depicted Angela Y. Davis on a crucifix, provoking allegations that his art is racist and sexist. (Saul has largely waved off those claims.) When Lindemann asked him why he became an artist, Saul simply said, “I didn’t want to go anyplace and get told what to do by anyone, on a regular basis. Which meant I couldn’t have no legal employment, so I just chose to be an artist.”
Lindemann pointed out that both Saul and Beeple tend to paint politicians and billionaires, to which Saul responded, “I only paint bad guys.” If Saul was indeed a bad Pop artist, as some in the ’60s thought him to be, then he resolved to play that role with joy, he explained.
While Saul enjoyed his reputation it seemed that Beeple did not, saying, “I don’t think it’s worked as perfectly for me, being the bad guy.” He also hastened to correct Lindeman, adding that his work only took a political edge in the past two years.
It was clear that Saul is intrinsically a bit impish whereas Beeple comes off as quite earnest and mellow—which is not what you’d expect from someone whose works constantly depicts world leaders with swinging breasts. But both seemed to understand that making controversial work is good for business.
Beeple’s large social media following fed off his meme-like, madcap work. Meanwhile, Saul recounted a story which summed up his attitude succinctly: “People were very upset when they saw Jackson Pollock’s [paintings] in Life Magazine because it didn’t seem like honest work. So from that I got the idea that in order to be famous, to live as an artist… you had to cause some trouble.”