Tyler Hobbs sold the entirety of his latest collection of abstract art—comprising 999 works—before anyone had actually seen it. Not even he knew exactly what the images of geometric shapes and flowing curves were going to look like. Yet eager buyers snapped up piece after piece last month as soon as they appeared online. The entire sale took just 28 minutes.
Hobbs, who lives in Austin, is what’s known as a generative artist. He writes computer code that sets out criteria for the generation of a host of unique pieces of digital art. Hobbs might, for instance, alter his code to reduce the presence of the color red. “Because red doesn’t work well with the big shapes,” he says. “So I’ll make it only use blue in cases like that.” He spent months tweaking the Fidenza code. Usually he makes money from his art by selling one-of-a-kind physical copies of the images that the code autonomously produces. For this sale, however, he made use of a website called Art Blocks, which sells, generates, and authenticates pieces of digital art. It’s a process known as “minting.”
Art Blocks was launched late last year by Erick Calderon, a forty-year-old Houstonian and owner of La Nova Tile Importers. Some of the artists who have released works through the 111 “art drops” that the site has so far hosted believe that Art Blocks could give them greater control over the sale of their own work and more money than they might earn in the analog art world. A few weeks after they dropped on Art Blocks, several of the Fidenza pieces have resold for impressive sums of cryptocurrency; Fidenza #553, for instance, raked in roughly $40,000 worth of ethereum, or ETH (pronounced “eeth”), as users call it.
Calderon’s plans for Art Blocks were initially modest. He simply wanted to build a site on which computer-generated art could be sold using blockchain technology. Yet the eye-popping prices the artworks have fetched, investor interest in the platform, and the notion of disrupting the traditional art world have turned Art Blocks from a pandemic-boredom side project into a rapidly growing business aiming to make this kind of digital art more readily accessible in the physical world too.
Blockchain started out as yet another rabbit hole for Calderon. He grew up around computers and was often throwing himself into some new obsession—video games, trading cards, learning to DJ, building race cars out of used BMWs. Later, as an adult, it was 3-D printing or how to make art with projection mapping, a kind of augmented reality.
Calderon had been reading about blockchain for several years before he began investing in bitcoin, which was born of the technology, beginning in 2017. Best known for its association with cryptocurrencies, blockchain is like a giant digital ledger of transactions stored across a decentralized computer network. Calderon’s experience in coding led him to get interested in Ethereum, another blockchain platform, as well as in the concept of “smart contracts”—conditions embedded into the blockchain record that secures a given transaction and establishes a chain of ownership.
“It just, it just blew my mind. Obviously, digital money is great, it’s cool, but smart contracts made money smart and made transactions more transparent. I lost it. I was like, ‘I want in. I want to be a part of this somehow,’” Calderon says.
His first experiment in smart contracts was a gift for a friend’s newborn. He purchased ten ether, worth about $100 at the time, and tied them to a contract that would unlock the funds on the child’s eighteenth birthday, about 600 million seconds later. That same amount of ether is now worth nearly $22,000, but there’s no way to cash it out until the contract unlocks years from now.
“That’s the crappy part,” Calderon admits. “Now I wish I could allow a way to recover it, put it into a college fund or something.” It’s possible, of course, that ether could be worth nothing by the time the contract expires.
Ways to deploy other types of smart contracts kept germinating in his mind. In 2017, the year he first bought bitcoin, Calderon also acquired several of the earliest “non-fungible tokens” available, a series called CryptoPunks. NFTs are basically authenticated pieces of digital art. Internet dwellers who typically have trouble making money from the memes, images, or even tweets they create have used NFTs to cash in on such internet ephemera. While those assets—the actual digital images—can still easily be replicated and disseminated, it’s the proof of ownership, recorded in the blockchain, that NFT buyers are really after.
The CryptoPunks series featured 10,000 computer-generated bits of 24-by-24-pixel “Punk” characters that were given away online for free to those who had the know-how to acquire them. The most sought-after of the CryptoPunks have since sold individually for as much as $11.8 million. Calderon last year planned to sell five zombie CryptoPunks that he’d acquired. He figured they’d go for about $15,000 in ETH a piece, but they ended up selling at auction for substantially more—shockingly high amounts. (Skeptics call the rush of money into NFTs during the past year a “house of cards,” yet sales of $2.5 billion worth of NFTs have been recorded for the first half of 2021, and big names such as Porsche, American Express, and Jay-Z have jumped into the market.)
Meanwhile, Erick began to discuss with his brother Daniel Calderon, a sculptor, the idea of using the blockchain to make fine art more accessible. At first, they thought about attaching QR codes to real-world sculptures that would send people to a virtual gallery where they could purchase unique configurations of digitally rendered versions of the same sculpture. But as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and public art spaces shuttered, the Calderons’ idea evolved into a platform where collectors could buy a generative artwork that’s never been seen before and is created on the spot. The notion contained an element that appealed to both brothers: surprise, like finding a hologram edition in a package of baseball trading cards, or buying a blind-box toy from a vending machine and not knowing exactly what you were going to get.
Erick worked on programming what was now called Art Blocks, at artblocks.io, making a project called Chromie Squiggle the guinea pig for the site. The Squiggles, which launched last November, are sold under Erick’s online handle, Snowfro (which ties back to a snow cone stand he used to own), for about $78 each. Two hundred of them sold in the first few hours, and more than nine thousand versions of the Slinky-like colorful doodle have been minted so far.
Among the Art Blocks buyers is Bradley Kreider, a former chef and yoga instructor who lives in Mexico. He discovered Calderon’s site via a cryptocurrency online discussion group, and it took a while to wrap his brain around the concept. Ultimately he was intrigued by buying a piece of art without knowing precisely what it would look like. “You can’t see what you’re going to get, but you can see of examples of what you might get,” Kreider says. “It’s like a childhood kind of excitement.”
In March, he purchased a work from artist Dmitri Cherniak’s Ringers collection for 27 ETH, then worth about $53,455. The image is a set of connected white, black, and yellow dots in a configuration that looks something like the head of a giraffe.
Art Blocks has so far hosted sales of collections from generative artists including Cherniak, Hobbs, Hideki Tsukamoto, and Stina Jones. They’re not household names, even in the traditional art world, but they have significant followings in the generative art space, which has existed since at least the sixties, when most art coders were scientists and engineers with access to early computers.
Artists set the price of minting each piece in an Art Blocks drop, and buyers must also pay what’s called a gas fee for the actual generation of the work. Storing information in the blockchain demands a tremendous amount of computing power, and with that comes a heavy energy demand. One transaction on the Ethereum blockchain can cost anywhere between $20 and $500 worth of energy.
One unexpected byproduct of the success of Art Blocks is that a significant resale market has emerged. Pieces that originally sold for anywhere from $30 to a few hundred dollars are going for tens of thousands on the site OpenSea. And the artists themselves are benefiting because one smart-contract feature that Calderon built into Art Blocks transactions grants the artist 5 percent of the sales price each time a work is resold. This feature also helps the artists track where their work ends up and which pieces become most valuable.
Since the Fidenza drop, Hobbs says, the total value of the collection has ballooned to “somewhere between $15 and $20 million,” he says. The average piece is now sold for $10,000 to $15,000. “Those numbers are mind-blowing to me.” Art Blocks has even attracted the attention of auction house Sotheby’s, which in June sold nineteen already-minted Art Blocks pieces, from a selection of artists, as part of the “Natively Digital” sale with Samsung as a sponsor. The lot went for $81,900.
Granted, the value of the artworks, in terms of dollars, can greatly fluctuate because of cryptocurrency’s instability. One ether was worth more than $4,000 a few months ago, but recently the price has been between $2,100 and $2,300. No one knows if it will return to its previous highs.
Hobbs donated $21,000 worth of ETH from his Fidenza proceeds to the visual-arts literacy nonprofit the Processing Foundation and $21,000 in cash to Girls Who Code, and set aside one Fidenza piece for an auction to benefit AGE of Central Texas. He also purchased 250 tons of carbon offsets to counter the environmental cost of the energy used by the blockchain to create and authenticate the collection.
The cash bonanza from his CryptoPunks sales and the success of Art Blocks has allowed Calderon and his wife to build a tiny home in Marfa and to start a generative art gallery there. A soft opening of the Art Blocks House is scheduled for October 8–10. Only one piece now hangs in the space, but it’s already attracting visitors. Why Marfa? Erick says Marfa artist Donald Judd’s 100 generative boxes were an inspiration for Art Blocks.
As Calderon has begun to take on investors and hire employees to help him screen work and program the website, he’s been considering expanding the platform into areas such as virtual video game objects, and creating a way for Art Blocks to be the software behind other blockchain gallery sites.
Are the collectors snapping up Art Blocks collections true art lovers, or are they primarily NFT speculators hoping to make a buck? Calderon thinks they’re both. “I believe, for the first time in their life, they saw a piece of art and connected with it as art. They’re seeing things that make them feel,” he says.
Another of those buyers, recent New York University business graduate Tyler Kraus, says that’s certainly been the case for him. “I never had the money to buy nice art for my walls or anything,” he says. The Ringers piece he bought has become a precious commodity, both in terms of ETH and in Kraus’s heart. Sure, anyone could find the digital file online and print it out themselves to display, but the blockchain says Kraus is its true owner (for now). “I’m really attached to it. I really don’t want to sell it, even if I could double my investment.”
On the other hand, Kraus is also weighing whether the artworks he purchases—sixteen pieces to date—will appreciate more than ether itself. “I love the art, but I’m such a bull on ether now that holding the art might mean missing out on the opportunity. I might think, ‘If I had held ETH, that would be worth ten times more, instead of the art, which might be worth two times more. Whether they’ll keep up one-for-one is something I’m balancing when buying,” he says.
The money is a large part of why Art Blocks is drawing attention in the art world and in the blockchain arena, but Calderon says his biggest goal remains helping generative artists increase the reach of their work. For decades their output has been underappreciated in the traditional art world, and their talents for creativity through coding misunderstood. “There’s genius to playing a violin or playing a musical instrument,” Calderon says. “To me, this is brilliance in automation.”
Correction: The total number of art drops that Art Blocks has hosted was misstated in a previous version of this story and has been amended.