Andy Warhol, in a 1963 interview, famously expressed a desire to be more like a machine. As with most things Warhol, the statement was somewhat facetious, somewhat surreal, but at its core, the honest truth: Warhol was fascinated with mechanization and how it could affect — and perhaps benefit — the creation of art.
Throughout the next three decades, Warhol pursued this machine-inspired aesthetic at The Factory, where he enlisted others to work on a myriad of his projects simultaneously. With the help of his Factory employees, Warhol is credited with producing over 10,000 pieces of artwork in his lifetime, a truly impressive amount of work.
But Warhol's got nothing on artist Steve Keene, who has created more than 300,000 paintings, and is widely considered one of the most prolific artists in all of human history.
The Brooklyn-based Keene is closely associated with the indie rock scene of the 1990s — he created iconic album covers for the likes of Pavement (Wowee Zowee), the Silver Jews (The Arizona Record), and The Apples In Stereo (Fun Trick Noisemaker), as well as posters, promo materials and more for dozens of other bands. His most reliable muse has been his own record collection: Keene has made countless paintings of album covers across every genre, and sold them for incredibly small amounts of money.
Keene is now the subject of The Steve Keene Art Book, the first book dedicated exclusively to his decades of DIY work. The book, which was released this month, collects hundreds of photos of his paintings, along with commentary and essays from luminaries of the art and music worlds to contextualize Keene's unique process and considerable achievements.
"Steve is a machine," Daniel Efram, who painstakingly curated and produced the book over the last six years, told Gothamist. "Andy Warhol hired The Factory to help him; Steve is The Factory. He's a one man art factory. If Andy Warhol could have been as prolific as he wanted to be, he'd be Steve Keene."
Efram, a photographer/producer who spent over 30 years in the music industry (and still represents The Apples In Stereo), first encountered Keene at Threadwaxing Space, a now-shuttered gallery in downtown Manhattan that hosted a lot of indie rock shows in the mid-'90s. "He basically was the artist in residence for the whole time it was around," Efram said. Keene would create a massive amount of paintings, covering the floor to the ceiling, and sell them for a suggested price of $2 or $5 each.
People "would have to climb up on ladders to pick their pieces," Efram said. "And they would do it at the beginning of the show, because they didn't want to miss out on taking the piece that they selected later."
Originally from Virginia, Keene received an MFA from Yale University, but found himself adrift in Charlottesville in the late '80s and early '90s, unsure whether he even wanted to be an artist. While volunteering as a DJ at college radio station WTJU, he befriended the Silver Jews' David Berman and future members of Pavement. He found himself inspired by watching them hustle to play shows and sell CDs, and seeing the rhythms of life for a working musician.
"He didn't feel like he fit in, or wanted to fit into, the traditional art world, where a premium is placed on doing one show a year," Efram said, "and then you maybe have 20 pieces in that show, but you have to sell a bunch of them before you actually can make a living. He started off as a dishwasher, and he thought, how can I be an artist and make as much as I do as a dishwasher? Because if I can paint, I'll be happy. Whether or not I actually make a lot of money isn't really the point here. I'm happy with minimum wage — literally, that's the way he put it."
Keene relocated with his family to an apartment in Greenpoint in the '90s where he created “the cage,” a room constructed of a chain-link fence where Keene can set up multiple canvases at a time and work simultaneously on them all for hours on end. The end result of that process is dozens of semi-identical paintings based on album covers, famous pieces of artwork, and other ephemera. It is because of this process that he can be so wildly prolific, which is what ensures he can keep his art wholly accessible and available.
Over the last 30 years, Keene has enjoyed a steady level of success and notoriety even as he has remained a decidedly cult figure. He’s had residencies at art galleries and institutions across the country; his paintings have appeared in the background of TV shows (including High Fidelity) and in restaurants operated by David Chang; Time Magazine called him an “assembly-line Picasso;” and the Brooklyn Public Library named him artist-in-residence in 2014, which led to then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams declaring June 14th, 2014, as “Steve Keene Day.”
After those initial encounters at Threadwaxing Space, Efram worked with Keene numerous times. Among other things, he enlisted the artist to make the cover for Wonder Wheel by The Klezmatics, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. And Efram helped to curate a Keene show at Subliminal Projects, an L.A. gallery owned by Shepard and Amanda Fairey, which led to the creation of this new book.
"He's a trained artist, but his work resembles a lot of folk art, from my perception," Efram said. "He works in mass, and he works with vibrant colors and confident brushstrokes. And a lot of the pieces have non-sequitur type language on them, and those make me laugh. That's why this is such an important book to make. He doesn't really fit into any one category, but he brings a lot of joy to people, including myself."
Gothamist recently spoke to Keene about his artistic process, his relationship with music, the mystery of his work, and what it was like reuniting with Pavement at Primavera Sound earlier this month.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Is it surreal to be back together with the Pavement guys in 2022, after you all came up together in the '90s? Yeah, I met most of those guys 35 years ago in Charlottesville, because we were all on the radio station. So it's been an awful long time, and this Primavera thing was really insane. There were like 65,000 people there, and it was a really good show, and it's so moving to see that [the band is] doing it still.
Do you feel like your association with Pavement, the Silver Jews and all those other '90s bands helped put you on the map and develop an audience? Yeah, I feel very grateful, I feel lucky. Although it really wasn't luck. I was friends with those guys, and I was inspired by them. I went to art school, I always did everything right, but I didn't really know why I should be an artist. And then once we started volunteering on the radio station in Charlottesville 35 years ago, me and my wife got to meet all those guys. David Berman and [Pavement percussionist] Bob Nastanovich washed dishes where I worked too.
And I felt inspired by musicians the way they had to put out their craft. They would do a show and hopefully 12 people would show up, and they'd have cassettes and they'd have fanzines. And their way of putting out who they were was through all this sort of ephemera, all this little stuff that could be traded with other people. And that completely bled into what I do. I thought that was the most exciting way to be an artist, kind of sneaking everything under the door. And I just haven't stopped doing that.
Is that related to why album art became a muse for you? Yeah, the albums are almost like … I know people buy albums now, but for a long time they didn't. And it was sort of a way for me to almost memorialize [the form]. I first started doing it for the WFMU Record Fair, I just thought that would be funny. And people really enjoyed it, that was about 20-something years ago. I've always painted them, but at that event, I was like a pretend record store, and it was pretty great. It's sort of like a memorial of a lost time, when you'd go into the store and you might be there an hour deciding if you're gonna get Steely Dan or the Allman Brothers.
It's not the only kind of work that you do, but why do you think it has become so synonymous with your style? It's accessible. People are comfortable with things that they like already. But it's funny, there is a tension sometimes. If I paint, like, Foreigner, nobody wants to buy it. But if it's the Stooges, they'll want to buy it, even though the Foreigner painting is painted beautifully. So I like to do a lot of stuff that people don't want just to see if I can get them to want it. It's kind of like a game sometimes.
What are your favorite album covers? Moby Grape, Wow. That would probably be my favorite. [It’s] collage from 18th century art. And maybe Abbey Road — I like that it's just simple.
Can you describe what the cage is like, and what your general artistic process is these days? The cage is the chain-link cage that we had put in here about 25 years ago. It's 12 x 24 feet. And I have easels in there, easels are in the center, and there's more painting space along the edge of the cage. So it's basically 80 feet worth of painting space. I had to kind of corral it all in because we first moved here 25 years ago, and we didn't have kids, and then little by little more and more gets taken up by reality.
So I have to squeeze in my fantasy world, and make it very logical and productive for how small it is, but I still can paint 80 feet worth of art at the same time. I'll hang about 120-130 wood panels, and I'll paint them all at the same time. I probably paint maybe 10 or 12 of each image; I just start with a color, and they're all started at the same time and they're all finished at the same time. I'll do, say, purple first, then gold, then black, then green. You kind of go dab, dab, dab, dab until it's all done. It's very messy. Then it gets tighter as I get closer to finishing it. These days I get like 120 done in two days.
So it's very much a craft — it's my art, but I've tried to dumb it down to a simple craft, like I'm decorating birthday cakes or doughnuts or bagels, something like that. My system is based on traditional, conceptual art of the '70s, where people make a list of their structure, their approach of what they want to achieve with their conceptual art project. And they follow through with it, and at the end are the results. But the results are the leftover of the process; the process is the artwork.
You're spending a huge amount of time in this relatively small space surrounded by your work. Do you feel like there's a meditative quality to the process for you? Oh, sure, it's very much [that]. When it goes well, the time just disappears and you're playing a game. My body is going to be 65 in a couple of weeks, and nothing hurts doing this. It's kind of wild. It physically feels good to do this. I'm sure I'm kind of deformed in certain ways because I've been doing this for so long. But my body has grown into these movements, it makes sense to me. We used to live off of Delancey [Street], and in [Sara D.] Roosevelt Park, you'd see all these people doing Tai Chi in the mornings. The way I work kind of looks like that.
Prolificacy is a quality often underappreciated in our culture. In the art world in particular, precarity and rareness adds monetary value. As someone who is proudly prolific, do you feel you've been misunderstood? I don't think I'm misunderstood. I have shown in museums, I've shown in galleries. Because I kind of give my stuff away practically, it's kind of hard to monetize what I do for somebody else. And that's okay — I make enough to pay the bills, and my wife has a steady job, so everything's okay.
But I know what you're saying. I've always loved folk art, like Howard Finster. He's the guy that did a Talking Heads cover [1985's Little Creatures], and R.E.M. videos in his garden and stuff. He's just like a crazy old guy, a minister who saw visions, and then just started cranking out these paintings to kind of illustrate biblical quotes. And my biblical quotes are bands or American history, things like that. But my work was built to be accessible, it was built to be fun. For me, I think it's also mysterious, because I do give it away and it goes in different places. People will tell me they saw my stuff in the Salvation Army in Florida, and I like the mystery, that it's everywhere.
What does it mean to you to have this book made about you and your work? It sounds like you didn't have a lot of input on it. Yeah, I didn't want to get involved because I guess I'm kind of a control freak. There could have been many different kinds of books; there could have been a book that I would control, which would be something different. This is magnificent. But you can't control the way other people think about your work. That's what I learned very early. So why try? If Dan's a big fan of mine, let him make his fan book. For that purpose, it's pretty amazing.
What did you expect from it versus what it turned out to be? I've almost not looked at it, because it makes me feel weird. I'm super grateful, incredibly grateful. But it's odd too, because I painted so much, and the book has hundreds and hundreds of paintings in it, but it's like a thousandth of what I've done. I will look at it one day, but right now ... other people come over to our house, and they want to look at it, and they kind of look at it, I say, "No, don't look at it." And they're looking at it, and I'm like, "Well, I'm not gonna look at it." But then I kind of sneak up behind them and look at it while they're looking at it. But I try not to.
It's a complicated feeling. Everyone wants something like this [the book] to happen. I've been doing this for decades. I want people to know that I'm still doing this. And I want them to know the reasons why I started doing this. So it's a good feeling.
Do you have any idea of how many paintings you've made at this point? Well, I think it's about 300,000.
Have you ever been tempted to make a little log book where you write every single one down? No, that makes it seem like a job instead of a passion. You know, I just wanted it to be a fever dream.
I also wanted to ask you about the tattooed plywood variations that you have been doing. How did that start, and what is the process? That is something I've been doing for about 10 years, and I don't really sell them, I don't try to sell them. I have hundreds of them here. I don't sell them just because it would cost more and the process is way more elaborate. I draw them in Rhino program, and then I transfer them to AutoCAD and I have a CNC router, which is a 4 x 8 wood cutter with a router on it. And my wife helps me make the part files for it; it's kind of complicated. If everything goes well, it basically tattoos the surface of the wood, and then I fill in the engraved lines with paint.
So it's meant to be the opposite from the other way that I work: I've kind of tried to make myself into a machine, and now this is a machine making art for me. I've been doing my regular "day job" artwork for so long, it's impossible for more ideas not to slip into you. As the years go on, you have more things in your mind. You need to find other outlets and hobbies. And this is something separate that I work on. The goal is that I'll eventually show all this stuff together, but it's still something kind of separate that nobody really has seen yet.
There's been a certain amount of doomsaying by certain people about culture in the city. As a longtime New Yorker, what are your feelings on the state of the city in this liminal pandemic period? I was saying like two days ago to my wife that it really is like that album Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young started singing, "hey, hey, my, my" that was a reaction to disco music killing everything, and now it's sort of like, "hey, hey, my, my, New York City will never die, there's more to the picture than meets the eye."
I really do believe that everything kind of sucked two years ago, and things are a little bit bumpy now. But I think you can't just wipe out what New York has been. Things are expensive. I'm older now, we've figured out a way to make life work. We've been really lucky. But I washed dishes until I was 36-years-old at night and stuff. So you gotta figure out what you want and just keep on working on it.
Yeah, it was Stephen Malkmus who said, "Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent." [Laughs]
This story has been updated to reflect that the book was released this month