Steve Keene’s Art Book
Directed by Daniel Efram
(Hat & Beard Press)
Steve Keene is the album cover tribute painter you loved but didn’t know you knew, now with a glorious and tantalizing 12-inch art book.
Daniel Efram began thinking about producing The Steve Keene Art Book in 2013. Almost a decade later, the book is ready for fans old and new to experience the breadth of Keene’s work. Brace yourselves: he has produced more than 300,000 paintings. Keene has been working for almost 30 years and his distinct style has appeared on the album covers of bands like Apples in Stereo, Band of Horses, Pavement and Silver Jews. To say Keene’s art is ubiquitous is a huge understatement for anyone who frequents record stores since his work seems to be everywhere. In Charlottesville, Virginia, where Keene began painting, his Album Art Tributes of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and The Clash’s Sandinista hangs on the walls of Sidetracks, one of America’s college town’s most beloved record stores. They’re all over New York stores, as you might guess, they’re in small towns across America, and you can even see them in some London haunts around Camden Town. They’re also at your fingertips: you can buy your own paintings from Steve Keene on his website. Some call it street art or popular art, others say demystified art or outdoor art. Yet, as the book reveals, Keene has created a style that is truly his own.
For all of these Album Art Tributes, Keene makes multiples of each record cover in various shapes and sizes, often on plywood or found materials. “If you’re an artist, you’re supposed to be focused in your studio, and you don’t want to be interrupted, and worry about whether you’re making a masterpiece. But to me, I treat it like I ran a 16-handle frozen yogurt shop,” Keene tells me. I smile and laugh, but he’s being honest. One of the most breathtaking of these works, reproduced to scale as a 12-inch sleeve in The Steve Keene Art Book, is the artist’s tribute to Big Star’s Radio City.The image on this disc, reimagined by Keene’s hand, is itself an image of photographer William Eggleston’s Red Ceiling. meta. If you don’t already know him, you will recognize him as soon as you see him.
And there is no single genre – not even close – for these Album Art Tributes. Keene’s work is truly for the music-loving masses. He painted musicians from almost every field imaginable. His work appeals to fans of punk, progressive rock, yacht rock, country, post-punk, grunge, indie and everything in between. How does Keene decide which Art Tribute Album to work on on any given day? “I have a ton of pictures in a box,” he says, “and I just flip through stuff. I try not to think about it too much because my whole way of working over the last thirty years was kind of ‘dumbing it down.’ I went to art school, and I try really hard, but I like that it’s impossible for me to make a great picture. that if I do 60 a day, there’s a limit to how much effort I can put in. So I almost have to close my eyes and paint intuitively, and I like to lose control of what I’m doing. “is incredibly intuitive, almost like sleepwalking. If I’m in the zone, I try to find systems that let me give up control of what I’m doing because I don’t like making decisions! My only decisions are how long I have to work that day and how many panels I will paint. It’s a very conceptual way of painting, which makes it a structured game. I’m like u n conceptual folk artist.
I’ve always wondered if each of Keene’s Album Art Tribute pieces in a series were replicas of each other, each taking on the shades or colors (or even missteps) that featured in the piece Keene had painted just before. In other words, I imagined a sort of assembly line process, where Keene initially painted from an image of an album cover, then made each additional Art Tribute Album from his own rendering just before. Turns out that’s not how he works at all! In fact, all of the album cover paintings are done simultaneously. “I just staple an image and start copying it with blue,” says Keene. “So I do blue, blue, blue, blue, then red, red, red, red, then green, green, green green. So they are all started at the same time and they are finished at the same time. Keene also paints more than music, from gin still life images to presidential portraits and cityscapes. Many (but certainly not all!) of these paintings are collected in The Steve Keene Art Book.
This book is wonderful. Beautiful glorious full color print. Folding pages. It even contains essays by artists and writers who have been fascinated by Keene’s work. In some ways it’s a coffee table book in the best sense, but it’s also so much more. Steve Keene’s art book should grace the coffee table in every music lover’s home. And wouldn’t that be perfect? Art, really, for everyone, although Keene jokes about the difference between the price of the book and the price of his art. “I haven’t really looked inside the book because it makes me a little seasick,” he laughs, but “the craftsmanship is really beautiful, and it’s really, really good quality. And that’s all really fun for me because, you know, I sell my paintings for like five dollars, and the book is $95! I like it.” Henry Owings designed it, working with Efram’s idea of the book as a 12-inch LP box set. Ultimately, it’s the size and shape it takes. “I had to make a book that would scream from the rooftops,” Efram says, “of the gravity, of the importance of Steve’s paintings in pop culture.” It’s “six love books with a cane cover in candy that will jump off the shelves”.
To celebrate the release of the Steve Keene Art Book, Efram organized a retrospective of the artist’s work which opened in Los Angeles and is now in New York. The exhibit features 100 pieces by Keene that reflect three decades of work. How did Efram decide which to include, given Keene’s more than substantial output? “Some pieces had never been shown before in private collections,” Efram tells me, “and some were so exceptional, like a 12-foot-tall, 16-foot-wide mural he created in 1994 and that I got my hands on.” I’m used to seeing much smaller paintings by Keene, so naturally I want to know more about the mural.” It ended up in a friend’s recording studio,” Efram explains. It had holes in the wall of the recording studio that needed to be covered, and because the room is so big, it seems like the characters are basically your audience, so if you were in a recording session, the musicians in the studio were playing in front of the audience. Perfect, absolutely perfect.
Speaking with Efram, it’s clear that he’s also a collector of Keene’s work, which probably comes as no surprise. “I moved to New York in 1993 or 1994,” Efram recalls, “and got a job at a record company and was in the music industry, traveling to indie rock clubs. in a circuit. Steve just seemed to be in every place I ended up! If I went to Brownie’s, he was there, or if I had a drink at the Lakeside Lounge, his stuff was hanging around all the time. You couldn’t to avoid [laughs].” Brownie’s was a fabulous club on Avenue A throughout the 1990s, and Lakeside Lounge was a street on Avenue B from the late 90s until 2012. The book includes a reproduction of one of the paintings by type of Keene representing Brownie’s, dated 1995 at the bottom. left corner and a landscape painting for Lakeside Lounge. “In the best possible way,” Efram continues, “Steve taught me a lot about the ability to collect art, and I think that’s really what the book is about: that art is not reserved to the rich. It’s about what art means to you and people’s ability to understand that they can collect art that they can afford and that will still have a lot of meaning.
What’s the best thing about the book? I leave you with Keene’s modest words: “It’s amazing. It’s hundreds and hundreds of photos. But it’s also strange to me because I’ve done 300,000 artworks, so it’s only thousands or less that have been recorded in the book. So I’d like the book to feel like a beginner’s guide to finding my stuff: at garage sales, at flea markets, or in your cousin’s closet.
Order Steve Keene’s art book here.
If you’re in New York, Steve Keene’s 30-year art book retrospective at ChaShaMa in Brooklyn Heights runs until October 14, 2022, with an official opening party on September 22. Keene painted live at the Los Angeles exhibit, which he is also doing at the show in New York.
Words by Audrey Golden. You can follow Audrey on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out his personal website to learn more about his writing.