This wallpaper doesn't belong in Grandma's bathroom.
Looking beyond the limits of picture frames, contemporary artists are going after the whole wall, attacking it with paint, video and their own wallpaper. The floor-to-ceiling works—prevalent at recent international art fairs—convey images ranging from the unsettling(floating eyeballs, writhing snakes, dead flies)to the whimsical(Andy Warhol in drag).
Artists famously toyed with wall art in the 1960s, when Mr. Warhol created hot-pink cow wallpaper and Sol LeWitt started drawing directly on walls. Today's artists are rediscovering wallpaper in particular thanks to sophisticated digital printing that improves the quality and cuts the costs. And some are more open to experiment with material once dismissed as merely ornamental.
"Artists are becoming more interested in that line between what's art and what's part of your everyday life, and wallpaper becomes this weird fuzzy space—is it art, or is it decoration?" said 29-year-old Brooklyn artist Gregg Louis, whose individual spin on wall art involves using self-tanning lotion to paint Rorschach-like bronze blotches directly onto a wall. (The work is part of a $30,000 installation showing this spring at New York's Nohra Haime Gallery.)
At Art Basel Miami Beach, rising artist Jonas Wood branched out from his paintings of interiors and sports figures and showed his first-ever wallpaper, a basketball pattern lining a wall for the Anton Kern Gallery. The New York gallery required a minimum purchase of six sheets at $600 each and estimated a $16,600 price tag for a 120-square-foot bedroom. The basketball wallpaper is attracting a new audience—one collector is considering it for a child's room, said gallery associate director Courtney Treut. She said the wallpaper doesn't steal business from Mr. Wood's canvases, which range from $10,000 to $70,000: "It's not an either or type of thing," she said.
The artist Rob Wynne photocopied dead flies that he spent weeks collecting for his 'Flypaper.' The New York wallpaper company Studio Printworks recently sold about 20 rolls to an art hotel in Arkansas.
The New York design company Maharam produces wallpaper featuring work by widely recognized artists such as the duo Guyton\Walker, who once collaborated with New York's Whitney Museum of American Art to wrap a downtown construction site in printed vinyl. Maharam also produces work by Thomas Bayrle, who created wallpaper with a green loafer pattern for the art fair Frieze London 2012.
Maharam started making deals with artists to create wallpaper—what it calls "digitally printed wall installations"—about two years ago. The company sells 55 artist wallpapers for $6,750 per 10-by-15-foot piece, large dimensions meant to avoid competition with galleries that generally sell an artist's work in smaller sizes. All the artists get the same royalty, which the company declined to disclose.
This spring, the New York wallpaper company Studio Printworks will launch silk-screened wallpaper for $450-a-roll by the artist Kiki Smith. Ms. Smith, whose prints were once featured in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, doesn't sign the wallpaper and it can be reproduced as often as customers want. Still, company design director Temo Callahan calls the paper "no less art than a signed, limited-edition piece."
Some artists are reinventing wallpaper altogether: Paris-based artist Brigitte Zieger created an animated video that looks like 18th-century toile until a woman in a bonnet walks out of the flat pink pattern and fires a gun at the viewer. The work, with a gunshot sound effect, can be found in a Paris jeweler's reception room.
Some artists are grappling with how much control they can exert over the wallpaper once it is sold. London-based artist Stefan Brüggemann, whose wallpaper consists of rows and rows of the phrase "conceptual decoration" in tiny letters, requires his work hang in an unadorned room in a museum-like space. "For me this is an important piece, I wanted to get it in the right hands," he said. A Swiss collector recently bought the wallpaper for about $50,000, he said.
Thorsten Brinkmann, an artist from Hamburg, Germany, recently traveled to Pittsburgh to hang his own wallpaper as part of a house installation intended for artists-in-residence and private exhibits. He covered the dining room with wallpaper that uses shots of dog treats favored by his mutt, Ernie. Wallpaper is one aspect of the artist's work, which also includes self-portraits photographed in a surreal Renaissance style.
For his Studio Printworks wallpaper "Flypaper," New York artist Rob Wynne photocopied dead flies that he spent weeks collecting. ("I'm an animal-rights activist, I did not harm them," he said.) Recently, an art hotel in development near the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., bought about 20 rolls. Mr. Wynne was impressed by the bold decision. "Who would want thousands of flies over their wall?" he asked. "It seems so improbable."