Selling the Unsellable:
Conceptual Art & Non-fungible-tokens (NFTs)

Georgia Gerson


In the middle of a media frenzy, the hammer went down on Beeple’s (also known as Mike Winkelmann) Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) at $69 million in an online sale with Christie’s auction house in March 2021. Heralded as the first ever stand-alone NFT (non-fungible-token) artwork to be sold at an auction house, it catapulted Beeple to the third most expensive living artist behind blue-chip heavyweights Jeff Koons and David Hockney.[1] The sale initiated the “NFT gold rush,” which in turn brought the concept of art-backed-by-the-blockchain crashing head first into collective art world consciousness and sparked heated debate amongst academics, journalists and the public.[2]

Despite artistic experiments with NFTs beginning in 2014, there remains much confusion around this new digital technology. Born from the need for the growing digital sphere to replicate some of the properties of physical objectssuch as scarcity, uniqueness and proof of ownershipand fuelled by advancement in technologies and a global generational shift, NFTs are an emergent technology which “certify ownership of . . . digital assets.”[3] What is generally accepted to be an NFT artwork is, in fact, twofold: it consists of the smart contract digital ledger entry stored on blockchain (a linked peer-to-peer system of computers that proves ownership and authenticity) which is referred to as on chain, and the artwork, a digital resource which is linked to it stored on conventional servers, also known as off chain. This is true in the majority of cases due to the high costs of storing files on the blockchain itself. One of the complicating factors which we will return to is that this file (such as JPEG, GIF, MP4) is freely available to be shared publicly online.

Many were bewildered by the fact that for such a large sum the purchaser of Beeple’s artwork would be leaving the auction house with a digital file that everyone has access to instead of a physical object. Consequently, concern about the legitimacy of NFTs is widespread. They have been described as “visual dogshit” and their complicated smart-contract-meets-JPEG ownership structure likened to the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes (or “Emperor’s new code”).[4] The specific purpose of their creation was to make digital art profitable in a way it had not been previously, making them a brazenly “transparently financialized art form,” as writer and art-market journalist Jo Lawson-Tancred has explained.[5] This causes discomfort as “one thing the legacy [art] world is reluctant to admit is the transparent relationship between art and money.”[6]

Outside of concerns about financialisaton, more broadly this scepticism could be due to the fact that wariness of the ‘new’ in art history is, itself, not new. Although there is a lineage between Conceptual art and NFTs, as American art historian Thomas Crow notes, “that art historians of a traditional cast should display little interest in new art, however historically informed, is of course, a familiar story.”[7] This is furthered by Jean-Philippe Antoine, Professor of Aesthetics and Contemporary Art Theory, who laments art history’s “grievous record of stifling the new.”[8] Additionally, the particular scepticism towards NFTs could be due to what artist and writer James Bridle sees as a “weak technological literacy in the arts,” and a wider “critical and popular failure to engage fully with technology in its construction, operation, and affect.”[9]

With that being said, this is not the first time that the art market has adapted to make sellable something which, on first appearances, does not seem to be. Some scholars and commentators have pointed to the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a possible pertinent comparative case study. To name a few, Amy Whitaker, who has been researching blockchain technology since 2014, has written about the nascent moment of Conceptual art pre-empting the structure of NFTs across a number of academic articles and notably in her recent book The Story of NFTs, written alongside Nora Burnett Abrams of MCA Denver.[10] Digital art scholar Martin Zeilinger wrote an essay in 2017 which links the immateriality and institutional critique of Conceptual art with art backed by the blockchain, albeit from a critical perspective.[11] In “Art of the Token” and “NFTs and the Death of Art,” Law Professor Brian L. Frye asserts that NFTs and Conceptual art are formally identical to one another.[12] Digital artist and essayist Rhea Myers, who will feature later in this paper, also consistently sees the experimentations of Conceptual artists as an important building block towards the development and principles of blockchain and NFTs. The wealth of examples available of scholars tackling this conception proves that, despite the assertions referenced above, there are those who are willing to engage with this new technology and its relationship to art history.

The purpose of this paper is not to pass judgement on the aesthetic quality or the legitimacy of investment in NFT-backed artwork, but rather to build upon the aforementioned scholarly interventions and explore this relationship. By critically engaging with contentions within Conceptual art scholarship I will consider whether, as a particular moment in time, it may have been an important catalyst for the increased commercialisation of the contemporary art market, of which NFTs as a financialised entity are a product. Also, I will look at the argument made by some that the precedent for NFT smart contracts was established by Conceptual artists’ and dealers’ experiments with certificates of authenticity in an attempt to commercialise the immaterial. Finally, by looking at relevant examples of NFT-backed artworks that directly engage with the legacies of Conceptual art by Rhea Myers and Mitchell F. Chan, this article will explore Frye’s assertion that “NFTs [are] essentially conceptual art taken to its logical conclusion.”[13] 

At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the problematic nature of the attempt to create lineages within art history, of which this paper is concerned. As described by McKenzie Wark, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, within art and academic institutions the “pressure is always to segment the world into chunks that can be managed as if they were the property of this or that specialist.”[14] This is furthered by American literary critic and philosopher Frederic Jameson in his important work A Singular Modernity, which says that such a pursuit is “intolerable and unacceptable in its very nature” for the way it tries to homogenise unrelated individual events.[15] The need to define our time within temporal and stylistic boundaries comes from a deep-rooted Western colonial desire to organise history and to assume it as a coherent, chronologically ordered entity. Additionally, setting up the argument for NFTs as a successor to Conceptual art is, in itself, a value-making practice as it potentially lends them the legitimacy of a well-established and highly sought-after movement within the canon of Western modern art. With that being said, as Antoine effectively argues, “acquiring an awareness of who and what haunts us is a huge part of, if not the main affair in, shaping the present.”[16] Considering whether and how the art market adapted historically to sell the immaterial could shed important light on the emergence and success of the market for NFTs.


A brief outline of NFTs was given in the introduction, but for a definition of Conceptual art we turn now to eminent writer and critic Lucy Lippard, who was herself involved in the movement. Utilising the descriptors ‘Anti-Form’ or ‘Anti-Illusionism,’ she describes it as distinguished by a “gradual deemphasis of sculptural concerns,” involving “a process of dematerialization . . . [of] material aspects (uniqueness, permanence, decorative attractiveness).” Lippard was the first to describe the Conceptual endeavour as a “dematerialization,” which has since become the term most synonymous with the movement. As Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer explain in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Conceptual art signified:

a critical break with the autonomous work of art. While these new works were often not dematerialized in a literal sense, they were nevertheless no longer contained within the object. Instead, it became a point of reference and question.[18]

For them, a key strategy of Conceptual art was its association with the importance of the artist’s idea (the concept) rather than a physical art object, which in some cases disappeared altogether.

Aside from the development of dematerialisation which is consistently mentioned in tandem with NFTs, I have noted many other recurring themes between the two, including questions around objecthood, democracy, commercialism, the market, ownership, and disruption, some of which we will return to later. However, at this juncture I will explore a disagreement between Conceptual art scholars with regards to the mythological status of the movement and its contested legacy, which has important implications for the ensuing increased commodification of the art object and financialisation of the art market.

Perhaps Lippard’s own participation with an emotional investment explains the idealism apparent in her account of the movement and its intent. In her essay “Escape Attempts,” which she herself caveats as a “biased history,” Lippard equates dematerialisation with the “power of imagination,” which allowed Conceptual artists to escape from “the sacrosanct ivory walls and heroic, patriarchal mythologies with which the 1960s opened.”[19] She discusses how the ‘idea’ of art, as important to Conceptualists, is more democratic than the idolised aesthetic art object of Minimalist art of the 1950s. Additionally, Lippard’s writings give an idealistic account of Conceptual artists with regards to their relationship to the market. She says that the movement “was very much a product of . . . the political ferment of the times,” namely “anti-establishment fervor . . . focussed on the de-mythologization and de-commodification of art . . . that could not be bought or sold by the greedy sector . . . that was exploiting the world and promoting the Vietnam war.”[20] However, in her view, the movement was ultimately a failure, as these democratic ideals were not realised and the artists and artworks remained commodified and part of art market systems of exchange. Fellow art historian Benjamin Buchloh, whilst calling Lippard “profoundly utopian” and “unimaginably naïve,” echoes her sentiments when he says that Conceptualism “constituted the most consequential assault on the status of [the] object: its visuality, its commodity status, and its form of distribution.”[21] He also considers the movement as a failure, as what he sees as one of the key tenets of Conceptual art, its un-institutionability, is hijacked by commercial success, and thus its only achievement was the loss of an opportunity.[22]

Not all scholars see the commercial success of Conceptual art as a failure, nor even as an unintended consequence. Alexander Alberro’s book Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity offers a convincing approach which differs from that of Lippard and Buchloh and potentially allows us to see the dematerialisation of the object as a pivotal turning point which would be partly responsible for the process of the accelerated commercialisation of the western modern art market. Alberro explains that the “new moment” of advanced “multinational capitalism” in the 1960s was characterised by a feeling of “euphoria” brought about by “boom years in economic terms.”[23] The increasing corporatisation and consumerism of society on the one hand birthed a new class of young, “upwardly mobile” art collectors who were not “culturally pretentious” like their predecessors, while also bringing about new relationships between the worlds of business and art.[24] It is precisely from this melting pot of contextual circumstances, according to Alberro, that Conceptual art emerged as the new contemporary art symbolically aligned to the socio-economic circumstances of the burgeoning corporate, globalised world.

Noah Horowitz elucidates the reasoning for this in his seminal work Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market, in which he states that the professionalisation of the art industry as a whole during the period of the Conceptual artists of the 1960s was a “momentous” “watershed moment” which caused a huge shift within the art economy and “validated the profitability of contemporary art.”[25] He goes on to explain that the dematerialisation of the art object goes hand in hand with the birth of a postmodern, global, neoliberal 1960s economy. Crucially, he says dematerialisation as instigated by Conceptual artists transformed the art market by “broadening” its “economic spectrum” and widening its scope from “a near exclusive focus on tangible objects to immaterial articles such as intellectual property rights.”[26] Philosopher Thorsten Botz-Bornstein also makes this link between Conceptual art and capitalism which was “originally . . . about the exchange of real goods,” but developed to become “abstract,” and then increasingly virtual, where “what matters is not what is but what could be.”[27] Simultaneous to this development in economic terms, through the dematerialisation of the object in Conceptual art, the abstract figure moved further and further away “until the work consisted of only a concept.”[28]


In Alberro’s account, the idea that Conceptual art “sought to eliminate the commodity status of the art object, while highly provocative, is mythical.”[29] Through an “unprecedented careerism” and highly sophisticated marketing operations, the movement was able to solve “questions of how to transfer ownership and satisfy the collector’s desire to own an authentic object,” even when there was no object to own in the traditional sense.[30] In order to do this, in the 1960s Conceptual artists and dealers such as Seth Siegelaub developed a merchandising practice whereby a certificate of authenticity on paper became the only identifiable physical manifestation of the artwork rather than an aesthetic object. Two such examples can be found in the work of Conceptual artists Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) and Lawrence Weiner (1942–2021). These certificates allowed the art market to tackle the quandary of making the ephemeral, dematerialised art object, tradable.

Sol LeWitt was a pivotal member of the Conceptual art movement, writing in 1967 that “in Conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work,” a much cited manifesto which informs the definitions from scholars outlined earlier in this paper.[31] His Wall Drawing series (Fig. 1, 1976, 1975; Fig. 2, 1990, 1989), comprising over 1,300 examples conceived from 1968 until his death in 2007, constituted a significant part of his oeuvre. The Wall Drawing[s] can take many forms: they can be monochrome or brightly coloured; drawn using geometric stencils, rulers or freehand; created using crayon, pencil, graphite or acrylic paint—to name just a few examples. Each time they are exhibited or created they are produced independently from the artist who conceptualised them by a third party practitioner, directly onto the wall of the museum, gallery or owner’s house based on a set of instructions given by the artist. These are often left open to interpretation, meaning that each Wall Drawing looks different every time it is created; for example, where size is concerned, LeWitt said that “the height of the viewer may have some bearing on the work and also the size of the space into which it will be placed.”[32] As these instructions can be replicated infinitely, in order to prove authenticity and ownership they were encoded in paper certificates of authenticity. The artwork is the idea represented by the instructions in the certificate rather than the executed drawing.[33] By extension, the owner of the instruction is the owner of the artwork.

Another leading figure of the movement, Lawrence Weiner, considered language to be his main medium, with his work centring around wall texts, books and posters. As above, in works such as ONE BEHIND THE OTHER ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER ONE IN FRONT OF THE OTHER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE (1976) and BALLS OF WOOD BALLS OF IRON (1995), the executed work is constructed directly on the wall from Weiner’s title and generic description of its content at ‘any size as suits the needs & desires of the receiver.’ Similarly to LeWitt’s works, the auction records for both of Weiner’s aforementioned pieces state that “the work of art is the certificate of authenticity, which will allow the purchaser to have the work realized at their own specifications and expense.”[34] Weiner seems to go a step further than LeWitt as, in the artist’s own words, “people, buying my stuff, can take it wherever they go and can rebuild it if they choose.[35] The work exists as a concept encoded in the certificate regardless of whether the purchaser decides to fabricate it according to the instructions or not. The certificate is the medium which allows the artwork as an idea or concept to be traded through the auction house for significant sums: BALLS OF WOOD BALLS OF IRON (1995) sold at Christie’s in 2015 for $185,000, and in 2016 ONE BEHIND THE OTHER ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER ONE IN FRONT OF THE OTHER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE (1976) sold for $118,750.[36]

Figure 1. (Left) Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 289, 1976, white crayon lines and black pencil grid on black wall, dimensions variable. New York, NY, Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase with funds from the Gilman Foundation, Inc. 78.1.1-4. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023. 

(Right) Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 295, 1975, white crayon on black wall, dimensions variable. Los Angeles, CA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Modern and Contemporary Art Council (M.76.103). © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023.

Figure 2. (Left) Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 631, 1990, India ink, dimensions variable. New Haven, CT, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Alexis B. Dittmer and Jason J. Dittmer. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023.

(Right) Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 614, 1989, India ink, dimensions variable. New Haven, CT, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Artist. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023.

Whitaker argues that examples such as these allow us to “understand NFTs not as an alien landing but instead as part of the history of art.”[37] As mentioned in the introduction, there is much concern about the legitimacy of the technology as it can be argued that “‘NFT art’ simply does not exist.”[38] This is because, as Anne-Sophie Radermecker and Victor Ginsburgh explain, the NFT is not the art itself but instead “merely a numeric code associated with an existing digital file” that is publicly available, which causes “serious confusion” amongst “less-informed stakeholders” in the art world.[39] Frye furthers this with his explanation that “NFTs are essentially meaningless,” as when you buy an NFT, you are only buying the token to a digital file rather than owning a digital artwork in itself.[40] 

However, as the examples of LeWitt and Weiner show, Conceptual artists had already set a precedent for untethering the artwork from the concept of its ownership.[41] Through encoding authenticity and ownership in paper certificates, Siegelaub, LeWitt and Weiner, amongst others, found a way to turn a publicly accessible concept, such as a set of replicable instructions about how to draw on a wall, into a private luxury commodity with value acquired through a performance of scarcity and authorship offered by the certificate. Frye asserts that NFTs and Conceptual art are formally identical to one another, as “when you buy conceptual art, all you get is the willingness of the art market to recognize you as the owner of the work. Exactly the same is true of NFTs.”[42] Akin to LeWitt’s and Steiner’s certificates, the NFT gives value to what is essentially an “infinitely replicable” digital file by giving it a “unique identifier” which records authenticity and ownership.[43] 

A further example to consider is Yves Klein’s series Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (1959-1962), created during the last three years of his life. Although this predates Seth Siegelaub’s explorations, Klein is seen as a predecessor of the Conceptual art movement and the Zone Immatérielle works have been pinpointed by various commentators as a crucial moment in the exploration of the ownership of the intangible as Klein “mastered the art of convincing people to pay money for not really anything at all.”[44] In this performance-based work, the artist sold nine immaterial zones, an intangible area of space that existed only in conceptual terms, in exchange for a weight of gold. A receipt was drawn up to mark and validate the transaction. The purchaser then had the choice to either retain the receipt and accept that the zone would have its own life through resale. In this case, Klein would keep the gold and the purchaser would “not really acquire the authentic immaterial value" of the work.[45] The second option was to burn it in a ritual in front of witnesses, with Klein throwing half of the value of the gold into the River Seine (Fig. 3, 1962). Through this act, a “perfect, definitive immaterialization is achieved,” with the zone becoming an intrinsic part of the collector, existing only ephemerally though the memory of the performance and ceasing to exist upon the collector’s death without the remaining record of the receipt.[46] Three of the buyers decided to undergo the ritual. As proof of how commercially successful this strategy was, Série no1, Zone no02 (receipt to Jacque Kugel), one of the remaining receipts, sold in the above-mentioned auction for €1,063,500.[47] Klein’s immaterial zone now belongs to the most successful bidder. 

Figure 3. Yves Klein, Cession d'une "zone de sensibilité picturale immatérielle" à Michael Blankfort, Pont au Double, Paris, 10 février 1962, performance. © Succession Yves Klein c/o ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023.

As well as being an important precursor to the Conceptual movement, in the catalogue note for Sotheby’s auction of Zone de sensibilité picturale immatérielle Série no1, Zone no02 (receipt to Jacque Kugel) 1959 in April 2022, Mitchell F. Chan specifically notes that there is a “compelling case to be made that” this work is “in essence, the first NFT.”[48] Klein’s receipts, in a way that was followed by the certificates of authenticity that we have looked at, allowed for the creation of a “separate artifact” for the financial aspect of the work and made the transfer of the immaterial possible, in this case literally empty space made concrete by the artist’s concept and outlined on paper.[49] In Chan’s account, NFTs “formalise and automate” this process of untethering the “financialized and non-financialized” parts of the artwork that was instigated by Klein.[50]

Despite the argument presented above, that there is a precedent set by Conceptual art for the sale of immaterial objects that is useful in understanding the technology of NFTs, it would be superficial to draw a direct and uncomplicated comparison between the two art movements. As mentioned at the outset, the NFT is not the artwork itself, but a sales and authentication mechanism for digital art. Digital art is an umbrella category encompassing a broad range of artistic styles, whereas the Conceptual art movement, as defined in this paper, constitutes a particular set of artists operating within a specific boundary of time and tied to an anti-establishment aesthetic of information.

Furthermore, it is too reductive to dismiss completely Lippard and Buchloh’s assertion that Conceptual art failed to live up to its radical ideals; to do so would be to negate one of the key assertions that dematerialisation was a tool the artists used in institutional critique. In Zeilinger’s account, Conceptual artists hoped to disrupt the circulation of the art market by “questioning the art object and the socio-economic as well as philosophical contexts of its material existence” through formal experimentation.[51] The artists became disillusioned by the market’s ability to assimilate and commercialise that which they thought of as being unsellable, particularly to such a successful and highly profitable degree. Writing in 2017, Zeilinger is concerned that blockchain art, which in theory is equally “well placed to engage critically with technological, institutional, aesthetic, and socio-economic conditions of its existence,” will similarly fall prey to “hyper-commodification and financialisation.”[52]

Zeilinger’s concerns were perhaps not unfounded, as evidenced by the sale of Beeple’s artwork which opened this paper and the extreme speculation and spectacular prices that accompanied the subsequent flurry of activity around NFTs. In fact, Beeple’s Everydays (2021), a digital mosaic of images created on photoshop every day for 5,000 days and posted online, has been described as facile and lazy and called out for its non-critical inclusion of racist, homophobic, alt-right and misogynistic imagery.[53] Aside from its attachment to an NFT, the work does not engage with blockchain as a medium in any specific or critical way.

It would be reductive to pretend that all artists working with NFTs are pursuing a conceptual endeavour in their practice. A great number of artists use this technology every day to authenticate and sell digital artworks of all kinds and, the above comment notwithstanding, this paper does not seek to suggest that not being conceptual is an arbiter of poor quality or less legitimacy. However, for the task at hand it is interesting to consider artists creating NFT-backed artworks that directly engage with the legacies of Conceptual art, particularly where it pertains to dematerialisation and critiques of ownership, authenticity and value, and whose work has complex roots in exploring the limits of NFT and blockchain technology as a critical endeavour in itself.

Myers is a UK born, Canada based artist, hacker and prolific writer described by Sotheby’s as one of the most important artists working with blockchain and NFTs, whose “continued experimentation sits at the cutting edge of conceptual experimentation of the NFT form.”[54] She studied the history of Conceptual art whilst specialising in Digital art at Canterbury College of Art and Middlesex University’s Centre for Electronic Art in the 1990s, and came to see the movement’s challenge to ownership and exchange systems through the use of certificates of authenticity as a useful template for crypto art. She often uses Conceptual art strategies in her practice and integrates these with the technological peculiarities of the blockchain as a medium, exploring “Conceptual art’s capture by the very systems of sale and ownership that it had initially sought to escape.”[55]

Two such examples that make direct reference to the Conceptual artist’s experimentation with certificates of authenticity are Is Art (Fig. 4, 2014–2015) and Certificate of Inauthenticity (Fig. 5, 2020). Although the former predates the introduction of the ERC-721 Ethereum token standard in 2017, which became the most popular smart contract to track and transfer NFTs, it is a pioneering artwork for being one of the art world’s first introductions to blockchain technology. Is Art is a contract based on the Ethereum blockchain network that can be instructed to either nominate itself as art or not as art. Anyone can access the contract and change the toggle for a fee, securing the state of the contract as either art or not art on the Ethereum blockchain until the next person pays the transaction to change it. The current state of the nomination is displayed with the statement ‘This contract is art’ or ‘This contract is not art.’

In her artist’s statement, Myers explains that it takes its inspiration directly from Conceptual art’s ideas. Firstly dematerialisation, as the contract is not attached to a physical work and the contract as digital artwork (or non-artwork, depending on its current state) is not presented in any fixed form. Secondly it asks us to consider whether the fact of its nomination as art or not by whoever most recently had access to it is “sufficient to determine whether the contract is or is not art?”[56] 

Figure 4. Rhea Myers, Is Art, 2014-2015, Ethereum DApp. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist. 

Certificates of Inauthenticity reimagines an earlier series entitled Shareable Readymades (2011–2012), in which Myers commissioned artists to create 3D printable versions of everyday objects that had become ringfenced by the art historical canon, such as a balloon dog, a pipe and a urinal (as canonised sequentially by Jeff Koons, René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp). These reproductions were placed under a Creative Commons licence meaning that anyone could recreate them, thus “critique[ing] the production of neo-conceptual art by artists such as Jeff Koons” and re-democratising these idolised canonical but commonplace objects in a move recognisable to the Conceptual artists’ reaction against the idolatry of Minimalism.[57] In 2020 she produced Certificates of Inauthenticity as NFTs to accompany these objects, taking one of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing certificates and editing it to fit her artworks. Myers’s certificates flip the idea of authenticity on its head, as it affirms that the artwork ‘has not been modelled, instantiated, or presented by Rhea Myers.’ The ownership of the token proves that the Myers has not made the work that is part of the Creative Commons and that it is therefore, technically, owned by everyone. As explained by the artist:

Figure 5. Rhea Myers, Certificates of Inauthenticity, 2020, ERC-721 Token. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.

if anyone questions the authenticity of the art that you are displaying and your right to own it, you can answer them that the art is provably inauthentic and that you have no more ownership of it than anyone else.[58]

On multiple levels, this work critiques the fetishisation of the art object and commercialisation of the art market, subverting the usual employment of an NFT by using it to prove inauthenticity.

In her pursuit to follow the dematerialisation ideals presented by Conceptualism, Myers has also taken inspiration from Art & Language, an artist collective heavily active during the movement in the 1960s. Myers’s Secret Artwork (Content) (Fig. 6, 2018) is a direct reference to the group’s Secret Painting series (1967–8) which feature a canvas painted over in black, under which, the viewer is invited to accept, lies another painting, and an accompanying text which states that ‘the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only by the artist.’ Secret Artwork (Content) works in a similar way, insofar as it is an NFT that contains the cryptographic hash (a hash function converts data into a unique sequence of ciphers) of an artwork but not the content itself. Through a variety of different ciphers – text, musical notes, emoticons, graphics – the presentation web page, accessed through the blockchain, tells the purchaser and the public everything there is to know about the work except, as the artist states, “for the one thing that you want to know, which is what the content actually is,” which is only known by the artist herself.[59]

Figure 6. Rhea Myers, Secret Artwork (Content), 2018, Ethereum DApp. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist. 

Chan is an installation, sculpture and performance artist and teacher based in Toronto, Canada, who wrote the Sotheby’s catalogue entry for Yves Klein’s Zone Immatérielle artwork referred to above. In his own practice, Chan recreated and updated Klein’s artwork using blockchain technology in the series Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (2017). The project, which was accompanied by a thirty-three page blue paper, featured a series of digital reproductions of Klein’s artworks sold via an NFT smart contract.[60] Whereas in Klein’s original the conceptual empty space was envisaged in physical terms, in Chan’s iteration it is purely digital. To give pictorial sensibility to a digital void, each of the 101 editions of the NFT would point to a webpage with a blank white screen. With some similarity to Myers’s Certificates…, the NFT token for each Digital Zone, known under the symbol IKB, featured a unique image of a receipt with artist signature that was created to be visually similar to Klein’s earlier versions (Fig. 7, 2017).

As with Klein’s original performance, in his blue paper Chan describes the ritual associated with this project. The purchaser of the NFT had the opportunity to either keep the token in their NFT collection or “execute the ritual function” embedded in the contract, digitally burning the NFT.[61] In this case, half of the sale value would disappear from the artist’s wallet and the collector would achieve “true immaterial value.”[62] Chan sees that the new technology has many benefits in order to further and enhance Klein’s original mission. Due to the contract for the artworks being created on the blockchain, and therefore immutable and unchangeable, no more than 101 Digital Zones can ever be created and their destruction in the ritual is absolute.

According to Zeilinger, digital art is a potential successor to Conceptual art as it can “help us rethink questions related… to the materiality of the digital,” as well as considerations about “the immateriality of the art object as an abstract container of value” raised by the earlier movement.[63] I argue that the artworks mentioned above represent just a small selection of examples that do just that: engaging conceptually with the digital medium and incorporating the financial element as part of the artwork itself. One of the techniques that Myers uses in For art and Secret Artwork in relation to the former point is to store the works on the blockchain itself (on chain as opposed to an off chain file), thereby exploring the boundaries of the blockchain as a medium in and of itself. To the latter comment, Chan’s Digital Zones continue Klein’s objective of acknowledging and investigating the financial aspect of artworks.

I would also argue that both Myers’s Secret Artwork (Content) and Chan’s Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility take the initial conceptual dematerialised proposal and push it to its limits in the use of the medium of blockchain or NFT technology. Through the use of cryptography, Myers has embedded secrecy directly into the code of the artwork, meaning that its content will forever be elusive to the owner and the public. By reconceptualising Klein’s Zones immaterielles as NFTs, Chan has further broken down the relationship between the material and the exchange as now even the transactional element, the receipt, has been fully immaterialised.

Figure 7. Mitchell F. Chan, Digital Zones, August 30, 2017, 2017, Non-fungible token. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.


Whether one agrees with Lippard and Buchloh that the Conceptual art movement was doomed to fail due to its anti-commercial, utopian ideals, and was thereby legitimised by a more ‘authentic’ identity as separate from the workings of the market or not, this paper has contributed to emerging scholarship on NFTs by showing that the mechanisms utilised by artists such as LeWitt and Weiner were a springboard that changed the market for contemporary western art from the sale of unique tangible items to include the immaterial, thereby opening the door to the emergence of the market for NFTs. I have shown that NFT smart-contracts perform the same function as Conceptual art’s certificates of authenticity, in this case by relocating scarcity and value into digital ledger entries rather than paper certificates.

Aside from the financial mechanisms of Conceptual art, one thing is for certain: the artistic and critical endeavours of the earlier group continues to be a major influence for contemporary artists such as Myers and Chan, showing that Conceptual art still thrives today. In my estimation, Frye was right in his assertion that NFTs are Conceptual art taken to its logical conclusion. Through their employment of the new technology, Myers and Chan seek to pick up the mantle of Conceptual artists and continue to critique ownership, authenticity and exchange through dematerialisation. Finally, as a new intervention, NFTs offer a fascinating opportunity for scholars to continue to re-explore the relationship between the (immaterial) art object and the art market.

Georgia Gerson is a current PhD candidate at the University of York. With a professional background in the field, her research reconsiders how value is constructed in the contemporary art market, investigating it in a new, unique way by using the recent intervention of non-fungible-tokens (NFTs) as a case study. Passionate about all art forms, alongside academia she works as a freelance marketing and communications manager for a number of female-led dance companies.


Article Information
Georgia Gerson, “Selling the Unsellable: Conceptual Art and Non-fungible-tokens (NFT's),” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 1–14. DOI: 10.15124/yao-za12-x736