Inside a Mayfair gallery earlier this week, a gathering of London’s cognoscenti raised colorful textured glasses along a well-appointed table stretching the length of the room. Glamorous as it was, the scene was a typical enough art world gallery dinner, except for the fact that the usual attendees, who included magazine critics and an art historian from the Courtauld gallery, were toasting an artist whose star ascended during NFT mania, and they were clinking glasses across the table with people named things like “blockbird” and “shamrock.”
It was at Unit London, where generative artist Tyler Hobbs was inaugurating his first solo exhibition in the U.K. On view through April 6, “Mechanical Hand” includes three paintings on canvas, and 17 works on paper. Real canvas and real paper, that is.
Hobbs became a sensation during the NFT bubble in 2021, best known for his highly sought-after “Fidenza” NFTs—a series of 999 algorithmically produced and randomized grids of color. In 2023, he remains a breakout as his market is one of few that appears to have survived the crypto crash. One of these pieces hammered down at Christie’s evening sale in London last week at £290,000 ($348,667).
But the focus of the evening was definitely on IRL art. The artist, who studied computer science at university, made the works on view using algorithms, codes, and plotters—a sort of robotic arm directed by a computer—to create aesthetic compositions, which he then embellished by hand, either painting or drawing on the surface.
Hobbs relates his work to the system-based practices of artists like Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, who took similarly methodical approaches to mark-making. Speaking to the room, Hobbs said that this type of work “can only be experienced in person.” And while sales of these physical works were indeed encoded on the blockchain, and there were two NFTs also displayed in the gallery on screens, there was little to no mention of the now-poisoned word “NFT.”
This detail didn’t deter the OG NFT collectors from feting Hobbs’s success. “I loved the work, and Tyler’s explanations for each piece made it all the richer,” Hobbs fan and NFT collector, blockbird, told me of the work. “I think this venture into the physical is a great move as it really helps explain and bridge the qualities of his algorithmic work to a new audience. For me as a digital-first collector, it still holds great appeal. I would love one of these in my home.”
And if celebrating, even in a whisper, an NFT artist was unusual for many of the esteemed art world guests, the state of affairs was new to the artist, too, who professed that he had never sat around a dinner table “in the middle of a gallery like this.”
Describing the exhibition, Hobbs said it aims to ask questions about the “adolescent relationship between humans and machines.”
“Computers and machines deeply influence our aesthetics, and I want to observe how that happens,” Hobbs said in a statement. “What implicit skew does the computer have, and what tell-tale signs does the hand leave?”
The questions lend conceptual depth to the work, as they certainly feel very relevant as algorithm-assisted text and image generators increasingly take over many of our daily tasks, and we collectively ask how we can move forward using a combination of both physical and digital tools.
Of the works on view, the works on paper shone the most. The earthen-toned gouache of Aligned Movement recall an ancient Roman mosaic or an Aboriginal dot painting. The pastel-smeared paper grids appear as if generative art pioneer Vera Molnár had a baby with a Rothko color field. The pale pink and purple hued watercolor of Delicate Futures has something in it of Helen Frankenthaler’s soak-stained paintings. The larger works on canvas, such as the primely hung at the back of the room, Return One [Red], are markedly less successful. That one, in particular, I thought looked like a D-version Kusama painting. Like much machine-generated art, it was all very good at looking like something else, and not very good at looking like nothing else.
But what do I know? Unit London director and cofounder Joe Kennedy told me the following day that the show had “pretty much sold out.” The show at Unit London is the beginning of a landmark season for the artist who will open another solo exhibition later this month at Pace Gallery in New York, coinciding with NFT.NYC. Prices for the works in the show start at £25,000 (around $30,000), going up to £300,000 ($360,000) for the red painting at the back of the room, which had sold to a Hong Kong-based collector by the end of the evening.
“Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” is on view through April 6 at Unit London. See more of the works below.