Prolific artist Steve Keene embodies a DIY rock-n-roll attitude, having painted over 300,000 pieces, including the iconic album covers for Pavement’s ‘Wowie Zowie’ or Band of Horses’ ‘Why are You Okay’. His distinctive style and technique led him to be described as the “Picasso of the assembly line” by Time Magazine. Keene has a democratic approach to art and has been known to give away his paintings or sell them for as little as two dollars in an effort to bring art to the people.
Longtime friend and fan, Daniel Efram has spent the past six years compiling a photographic collection of Keene’s work. Thanks to the support of Keene lovers around the world, Efram has now produced the “Steve Keene Art Book“, a collection of images and stories that celebrate the incredibly unique world of Steve Keene. The artist and producer joined “City Lights” senior producer Kim Drobes via Zoom for a conversation about the impact of Keene’s philosophy and wide-ranging work.
How, as DJs in the 90s, Steve and his wife found the perfect artistic audience:
“We loved new music – we were older than a lot of students so we played a lot of old music and combined it with the new music of the day, which was then Nirvana… and just to be in a basement, surrounded by tens of thousands of albums. And each album was someone’s dream, whether it would be the greatest album or a recording of how they lived that year,” recalls Keene.
He continues: “I’ve always liked people making homemade books, little fanzines to promote their writing or their music, and that was before people had websites. Nobody had a computer at home, really. And I just connected with the idea, ‘Well, how come art doesn’t seem like fun?’ I went to art school, did all the right things, and loved making art, but I didn’t really know how to connect, have an audience, or what kind of people would like my work. So I kind of threw all that away and decided to not even consider myself an artist, but a person who creates information; little bits of information that come out into the world.
On valuing the process as much as the finished work:
“I love painting multiples of the same image, almost like making prints. So I line up how much I’m going to paint for that day or that week, depending on how much space I have, and basically I’ll do about 40 or 50 a day,” Keene said. “Then I line up all the panels in a logical order, and I start with the first color. Maybe it’s blue, and I just put my blue stain on all the paints. Then I go back to the other colors and, and I start with big brushes and I end up with smaller and smaller, more detailed brushes, and then at the end, I sign my name or write a few words.
Keene continued, “I’ve always loved American art from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, where it’s either minimalism or things like Jackson Pollock, when, I mean, he felt in his paintings when he created them. He felt there was no separation between him and work. It became a performance… Besides the musical ideas, I think a lot about the kind of abstract expressionist ideas about “becoming” in painting.
On the possibly impossible task of a complete Keene collection:
“I mean, it’s impossible to cover all of his work. It’s crazy, actually,” Efram said. “But I tried to put as wide a strip of what’s out there as I could, representing every decade that he worked and did his best. And really, it’s a big book, and I’m really proud of it. But that cannot be his life’s work. It’s just not that. I think Steve has said it before, and I like that – it’s a ‘greatest hit’. Like an album or a musical artist, it’s a “greatest hit…”, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only hits.
“The Steve Keene Art Book” is out now and available for purchase at https://hatandbeard.com/products/the-steve-keene-art-book.