Three hours before Beeple’s first gallery show at Jack Hanley Gallery opened today, a long line had already begun to form. “Look, a female,” one of the many men there said when I showed up at 11 a.m., surprised by the rope and line outside the gallery door. (Later, a gallery attendee sheepishly explained, “It’s great that you’re here—not a lot of women in the space.”) Another man in line, Max Kulchinsky, explained why such a big crowd was already present: Beeple had promised that the first 200 people in line for the show would be gifted a poster, each with some drawings or doodles made by the artist himself. “I found out about this through Beeple’s Discord—he has a private channel for collectors,” said Kulchinsky, who was lucky enough to snag one of Beeple’s $1 drops from late 2020. Most of the people in line had heard about the special event by word of mouth.
Beeple made international headlines in 2021, when an NFT by him sold for $69 million at Christie’s and initiated a bona fide boom within the art world, but curiously, the Jack Hanley show had flown under the radar. There was little information made available in advance on the gallery’s site, and multiple attempts to reach the gallery’s founder before the show’s opening failed. When I finally got a hold of Jack Hanley on Thursday, he explained that the strategy was purposeful: “He asked me not to do any publicity beforehand and I agreed. There’s people who seem to want to corner him into making a mistake in one form another, so I guess that’s why.”
Still, a number of enthusiasts appeared to have somehow found out about the show. “When he asks me my name I’m just gonna tell him to draw me a penis,” said a man in the line, referencing how often phalluses appear in Beeple’s work. Passing around a joint, some of people eagerly discussed their expectations for the show. Already known for his vulgar political content (think Xi Jinping with boobs and a Pikachu hat, or Abraham Lincoln spanking a naked Donald Trump), Beeple was expected to deliver something even more verboten with this show—perhaps a commentary on Putin, who he has already depicted many time before, or maybe something about the “tech oligarchs,” another familiar subject for Beeple.
Terry White, a personal trainer who began dabbling in NFTs last year, admired Beeple for his irreverence. “It’s important,” he said. “It’s free speech. You couldn’t do what he does in China—you’d get snatched.”
Marla Manfredi, who had driven in from New Jersey with her husband, felt similarly. Yet, she clarified, the political nature of the work didn’t seem to divide the NFT community. “There’s no debate—it’s about art, about having fun,” she said. That seemed to sum up the general attitude.
Beeple is a natively digital artist who loves to shock. He’s even a bit of a troll. But this abrasiveness is softened by his Wisconsin mannerisms and accent, his glasses and plain sweaters. The people who love him—and, to some degree, Beeple himself—don’t trust the über-powerful, and also don’t put forward strong political views. Instead, they agree that none of these people can be trusted and delight in Beepl’s mischievous takedowns of state leaders and tech gods like Mark Zuckerbeg and Jeff Bezos. (Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and a proponent of decentralization, has been spared the Beeple treatment.) In this way, Beeple is the perfect face for NFTs and proponents of Web3 in general: they want out of the system, not to take sides within it. How that maps onto the existing political spectrum is complicated, mostly because the space is very diverse.
Finally, 2 p.m. rolled around, and the show opened. Bouncers hired for the opening herded people into neat lines while warning them that they’d be escorted out if found with water or food. “Don’t touch the art,” one bouncer reminded everyone.
After three hours of anticipation, the show was at first a bit of a letdown. Posters were handed out, pre-made and pre-doodled. The energy lifted again though when people saw Beeple standing nearby with a beer in hand. He was quickly surrounded by his admirers.
The artist seems to have toned it down for his art world debut. (There were no naked political leaders in bunny costumes, at least.) A series of prints on aluminum offers gently dystopian fare rendered in Mad Max–like dieselpunk aesthetics. GOOGLE DATA 2079, AMAZON MOBILE SITE 2091, and NETFLIX 2087 (all 2017) depict haphazardly stacked shipping containers, cranes, and satellite dishes in barren wastelands. Like these works, most other pieces in the show depicted junk-like architecture of the future.
Beeple included a few oil paintings as well. In ZUCK (2021–22), the giant, decapitated head of Mark Zuckerberg lies discarded on the ground, with tears in its eyes as people look on. YOU GOT MAIL (2021–22), another print, depicts a headless Jeff Bezos. A flipped Amazon logo forms a frowny face in part of the work, and people in hazmat suits surround Bezos. In TOXIC MASCULINITY (2021–22), Bezos is again the subject, this time surrounded by penises that sprout from his many giant heads. All works are accompanied by associated NFTs that go to the owner of the physical works.
Hanley said multiple people had expressed interest in buying each of the works.”It’s not clear how we’re going to sort that out yet,” he said. Hanley seem surprised by the line he had seen growing outside—an unusual sighting at his gallery or, for that matter, any New York gallery. I told him the audience outside his door was excited. “Are they?” Hanley responded. “I’ve been signing bills in here all day. I’ll come out and see it.”