Home Artistic creation How Brooklyn’s Steve Keene Became the Most Prolific Artist in American History

How Brooklyn’s Steve Keene Became the Most Prolific Artist in American History

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Is it surreal to be back with the Pavement guys in 2022, after you all got together in the 90s? Yeah, I met most of these guys 35 years ago in Charlottesville, because we were all on the radio. So it’s been a very long time, and this thing with Primavera was really crazy. There were about 65,000 people there, and it was a really good show, and it’s so emotional to see that [the band is] do it again.

Do you think your association with Pavement, the Silver Jews, and all those other 90s bands helped you gain exposure and build an audience? Yes, I am very grateful, I feel lucky. Even if it was really bad luck. I was friends with these guys and they inspired me. I went to art school, I always did everything right, but I didn’t really know why I had to be an artist. And then once we started volunteering at the Charlottesville radio station 35 years ago, my wife and I met all these guys. David Berman and [Pavement percussionist] Bob Nastanovich also did the dishes where I worked.

And I felt inspired by the musicians in the way they should practice their art. They would do a show and hopefully 12 people would show up, and they would have tapes and they would have zines. And their way of showing who they were was through all these kinds of ephemera, all these little things that could be traded with other people. And that has completely bled into what I do. I thought that was the most exciting way to be an artist, kind of slip everything under the door. And I haven’t stopped doing that.

Is it related to why the album cover has become a muse for you? Yeah, albums are almost like… I know people buy albums now, but for a long time they didn’t. And it was kind of a way for me to almost commemorate [the form]. I first started doing it for the WFMU Record Fair, I just thought it would be fun. And people really liked it, that was about 20 years ago. I’ve always painted them, but at this event I was like a fake record store, and it was pretty awesome. It’s kind of like a memorial to a lost time, when you walk into the store and stand there for maybe an hour deciding whether to buy Steely Dan or the Allman Brothers.

It’s not the only type of work you do, but why do you think it’s become so synonymous with your style? It’s accessible. People are comfortable with the things they already like. But it’s funny, sometimes there is a tension. If I paint, like, Stranger, nobody wants to buy it. But if it’s the Stooges, they’ll want to buy it, even if the outsider’s paint job is beautifully painted. So I like to do a lot of things that people don’t want just to see if I can get them to want it. It’s a bit like a game sometimes.

What are your favorite album covers? Moby grape, Wow. It would probably be my favorite. [It’s] 18th century art collage. And maybe Abbey Road ⁠— I like it to be simple.

Can you describe what the cage looks like and what your general artistic process is these days? The cage is the chain link cage that we installed here about 25 years ago. It’s 12 x 24 feet. And I have easels in there, the easels are in the middle, and there’s more painting space along the edge of the cage. So it’s basically 80 feet of painting space. I had to put it all together because we first moved here 25 years ago, and we didn’t have kids, and then little by little more and more things got caught up in reality.

So I have to sneak into my fantasy world and make it very logical and productive for its small size, but I can still paint 80 feet of art at once. I’m going to hang about 120-130 wood panels, and paint them all at once. I probably paint maybe 10 or 12 of each image; I just start with one color, and they all start at the same time and they all end at the same time. I’ll do, say, purple first, then gold, then black, then green. You’re kind of going to dab, dab, dab, dab until it’s all done. It’s very messy. Then it gets tighter as I get closer to finishing. These days, I do 120 in two days.

So it’s really a craft – it’s my art, but I tried to reduce it to a simple craft, like decorating birthday cakes, donuts or bagels, something like that. My system is based on traditional concept art from the 70s, where people list their structure, their approach to what they want to achieve with their concept art project. And they follow through, and at the end are the results. But the results are the leftovers of the process; the process is the work of art.