Assembly-line Picasso or cynical hack? Steve Keene keeps his cheap art coming
By Barry Divola
It’s a grey, drizzly October day in New York City, but on the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, the ChaShaMa gallery has its doors wide open to the street. There’s an artist at work inside and the public has been invited to watch. He has 48 sheets of plywood set up on wooden trestles, and he prowls around them, adding a bold stroke here and there, moving quickly from picture to picture, restlessly working his way in circles, building up layers and only pausing to mix a new colour. He’s painting multiples in groups of six, and today his subject matter is famous writers, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
His name is Steve Keene. He’s a wiry, bespectacled 65-year-old who exudes a prickly, nervous energy. And as he has produced more than 300,000 works of art – at a rate of around 40 to 50 a day – he is often dubbed the most prolific artist in history.
I’m here to see how he does it, to investigate why he does it, and to find out why he charges so little that he just about gives his art away.
Steve Keene in his home workspace, a studio encircled in chain-link fencing that he affectionately calls “The Cage”.Credit:New York Times
I came to know Keene’s work through ’90s indie rock, originally via the cover of Pavement’s 1995 album Wowee Zowee, which he painted. He has also created artwork for Silver Jews, The Apples In Stereo and Band Of Horses. You can even see a young Keene at work in the video for The Triffids’ 1997 single Save What You Can.
Keene and his wife met and befriended David Berman of Silver Jews and some of the future members of Pavement when they all volunteered as DJs at their college radio station WTJU in Charlottesville, Virginia. He initially sold his art at rock shows, asking just a couple of dollars for each painting and using an honour system, using a wooden box with a slot in the top to collect the cash.
Not too much has changed since those days. This month-long residency in Brooklyn also features a retrospective of his work, showcasing around a hundred paintings loaned by collectors across the US. The month culminates in the official launch of The Steve Keene Art Book, a lavish 265-page tome that includes reproductions of his work, essays by artists Shepard Fairey and Ryan McGinness, and notes from music luminaries including Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who wrote: “Keene is the rare artist, like Bo Diddley or Stevie Wonder, about whom one can feel only joy.”
That joy is a common response to his work, and Keene sees it as a dialogue with the people who own his art.
“I’m trying to make my art accessible,” he says, taking a break from painting and sitting cross-legged on a drop-sheet on the gallery floor, wearing a button-down shirt, baggy shorts and sneakers, all spattered with paint. “Because my paintings are cheap, I like it when people get six at once and they hang them together, and then that creates a narrative, like a comic strip. They might get one with flowers and one with a castle and one with Bob Marley, and hang them together. I like that people are participating in what I do in that way.”
Album covers by New York artist Steve Keene.
Keene has painted live as part of exhibitions and residencies in places such as the Santa Monica Museum Of Art and the Brooklyn Public Library, received commissions from PR companies and record labels, and his work has been hung in David Chang’s restaurants and appeared in the recent TV remake of High Fidelity.
I like the fact that you can see my work anywhere … your cousin’s place, a bar, or a laundromat.
But despite his popularity, his indie rock spirit has remained. Keene’s prices are still ridiculously low and his selling methods through his website are unorthodox. He asks $US70 ($110) for six paintings, but Keene chooses the six, so buyers don’t know what they’re getting until the package arrives.
“The idea is that people trust me, so I try to give them a good range and a good deal,” he says. “I think of my paintings like fanzines or trading cards. I want everyone to be able to afford original art and I like the fact that you can see my work anywhere. You could see it at your cousin’s place, or in a bar, or in a laundromat.
“Some people can’t understand why I sell my art so cheaply, but I see magnificent graffiti on walls and that’s free, so what’s the difference? I’m just obsessed with creating art and then getting it out into the world.”
Normally, he works out of his home studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in a place he calls The Cage. It’s a space fitted out with chain link fencing, where he can hang up to 96 pieces of plywood to paint simultaneously. He often works from 8am to 6pm, six days a week.
Steve Keene at work on his depictions of Virginia Woolf. Credit:Daniel Efram
“But, for me, this is a work of art, too,” he says, waving an arm around the public painting space. “I’ve done this kind of thing in a number of places and it’s like a performance. When people buy the paintings, I hope they like them, but I look at the finished product as just a part of the artwork. Doing it is what I like about it. The process of working on them is what’s beautiful.”
Over the years his work has been called everything from folk art to naive art, and he has been compared with the likes of Morris Katz (aka the “King of Schlock Art”) and Howard Finster (an artist and Baptist minister who claimed to be inspired by God).
Inside the ChaShaMa gallery during Steve Keene’s month-long residency.Credit:Daniel Efram
In the book, Shepard Fairey, who created the famous Barack Obama Hope poster, begs to differ. “Steve Keene’s work seems simple, maybe even naive at first glance, but don’t be fooled,” Fairey writes. “There is a very ambitious and sophisticated set of ideas and techniques that drive his prodigious output.”
A 1997 profile in Time famously dubbed him “the assembly-line Picasso”. In that story, one critic called Keene’s work “cynical mean-spirited schlock”; he’s been called everything from a commercial hack to an anti-art subversive. In fact, Keene is steeped in art history and has a Masters of Fine Arts from Yale. But he seems unfazed by the tags people have put on him over the years.
Steve Keene in his Brooklyn studio. Credit:New York Times
“Someone once called me a conceptual folk artist, and I don’t mind that at all,” he says, shrugging. “In a way, I’ve had to unlearn things. Often if I paint loosely and quickly, the strokes work better than anything I could plan. The paintings are like my handwriting, in a way.”
Keene has cited Matisse, Van Gogh, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt and minimalist art of the 1970s as influences, and bases many of his paintings on album covers or images found in old books, postcards and magazines. Over the years he has consistently maintained his prolific output and working methods.
“One of the reasons I like doing multiple paintings at once is that I like being surrounded by the art. It’s like when you’re younger and you fall in love with Pollock, seeing pictures of him being literally surrounded by his painting, or you go to Venice, where everything is art, from the walls to the floor to the ceiling, so you’re immersed in it. For me, it’s like I’ve been working on the one piece of art for 35 years, and everyone gets a little piece of it.”
So, how does he feel about The Steve Keene Art Book?
“It’s great, but, you know, I haven’t really read it or looked at it too closely,” he says, scratching his head. “I have this phobia about art books. I buy a lot of them and never take the plastic wrapping off. I just like the idea of them. So this book is the ultimate in art book phobia, because it’s about me. I’ll look at it one day.”
Keene is not one for looking back. He’s always thinking about the next day’s work. It all goes back to his early days, and how he adopted a work ethic he maintains to this day.
“I’ve always been attracted to rock bands starting out, how they all get in a van with their instruments and a shoebox of cassettes and drive five hours to play for 18 people. I like the impossibility and Don Quixote-ness of it. You end up doing it for yourself, whether people like it or not. I can relate to that.”
As for whether he has any intention of ever stopping, he just shakes his head at the question. Does he think he could die with a paintbrush in his hand, lying on the floor of The Cage? “I hope that happens,” he says, offering a rare smile.
And then he gets up off the floor, stretches, and returns to work.
The Steve Keene Art Book is available now at hatandbeard.com
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