Whether you were a part of the indie rock scene in the ’90s or are just a fan of the classic music that came out of the fertile indie underground, you’ve almost certainly come across the art of Steve Keene. The Virginia-born, Brooklyn-based painter created indelible album covers, posters, stage props, promo materials and more for bands like Pavement, Silver Jews, The Apples in stereo, the Klezmatics and more. Beyond that, he’s created quite literally hundreds of thousands of art pieces by his own hand that are in homes and record stores across the globe.
“[Andy] Warhol wanted to be a machine, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat made thousands of pieces very quickly — all that is wonderful, those guys produced massive amounts of work – but Steve has made more than them both combined,” says Daniel Efram, a photographer/producer who, alongside Amanda and Shepard Fairey, curated an exhibit spotlighting Keene in 2016. “He’s made over 300,000 pieces from his own hands. He’s a one-man art factory. History needs to be set straight about this issue.”
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Enter The Steve Keene Art Book, a vinyl-LP sized tome produced by Efram that comes out June 14 via Hat & Beard and Tractor Beam. Inspired by the huge success of the Keene exhibit at the Faireys’ Subliminal Projects gallery, Efram – who still has his feet in the indie music scene as the manager of The Apples in stereo – decided it was high time for a book dedicated to the wildly prolific artist. And in a DIY fashion befitting a painter who has always made a point to create affordable art by his own hand, Efram turned to a Kickstarter funding campaign as well as social media, asking fans to tag their pieces “#SKartBook” on Instagram in order to track down pieces in people’s homes that span Keene’s decades-long career.
“They’re vibrant, colorful and thought-provoking and sometimes very humorous,” says Efram of Keene’s pieces, citing a bust of Richard Nixon with the words “we saw Beck at Knitting Factory” on it as a personal favorite. “There’s a seven-month wait to get his pieces online. How much joy has he spread with these 300,000 pieces? He’s a major figure in American art history.”
Keene’s best-known piece might be the album cover art for Pavement’s 1995 classic Wowee Zowee; additionally, back in the ’90s, Matador’s Christina Zafiris commissioned Keene to create a hundred three-to-five-foot-tall wood trees to send to retail outlets as a promotional item for Stephen Malkmus & company. “These trees are still being used 25 years later in record stores,” says Efram. “[They have] staying power and a utilitarian purpose. They’re not only flashy, fun and represent a band that’s cool, but they’re good for hanging your coat on. I think Steve would appreciate the idea of people hanging their coats on his stuff.”
The Steve Keene Art Book, edited by chickfactor editor-in-chief Gail O’Hara and designed by Henry Owings, also features essays from a variety of people in Keene’s orbit over the years, including the aforementioned Zafiris, Hilarie Bratset, Sam Brumbaugh, Elle Chang, Efram, Shepard Fairey, Karen Loew and Ryan McGinness, plus quotes from Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), among others.
Ahead of its release, journalist Karen Loew shares a portion of her essay “More Than You Asked For: Color & Joy for the People,” which is featured in the upcoming The Steve Keene Art Book, with Billboard. Read it below and pre-order here.
In the mid-1990s, Keene’s work began spreading well beyond Virginia. Some of his paintings became the very thing that had fascinated him: album covers. Silver Jews released The Arizona Record in 1993, with western motifs by Keene on the cover. In 1995, The Apples in stereo released their first studio album, Fun Trick Noisemaker, with Keene’s exuberant paintings on the cover as well as inside; Keene had sent them so many possibilities to choose from that they selected several. Pavement’s third studio album, Wowee Zowee, came out the same year, with an enigmatic yet memorable Keene cover (based on a photo of two Arab women in burkas and a goat from a 1972 Life publication called The Arab World).
By then Steve and Star Keene had moved from Charlottesville to New York City. Their friends in bands also migrated to the area. Pavement drummer Steve West and his wife lived in the same loft building on North 11th Street in Brooklyn as the Keenes, when Williamsburg was just being “discovered” and artists moved into warehouses to live cheaply, with plenty of space to create. The building was owned by Tim Nye, who founded the Threadwaxing Space, a downtown Manhattan performance spot and gallery. Malkmus, Nastanovich and Berman lived across the Hudson in Hoboken. Keene began showing his paintings at the Threadwaxing Space’s huge loft on lower Broadway. One evening when Dan Efram, this book’s creator, went to see a band there, he experienced Keene’s artwork in person for the first time. There were dozens upon dozens of paintings covering an entire wall up to the ceiling. There was a wheelbarrow that Keene used to transport his work, and a box set out to collect payments: $2 or $5 suggested per piece, or pay what you wish. Efram was astounded by the scene. “I chose three small pieces, and put ten bucks in his pay-what-you-want box, and left,” he recalled. “The first time I saw it, my mind was blown. I don’t know if I even connected the Silver Jews, Pavement or The Apples in stereo to him at that point.”
Over the next 20 years, Efram would work with Keene on numerous projects. They include albums by the Klezmatics, The Apples in stereo, whom he manages, and assorted projects by Apples frontman Robert Schneider, such as Marbles and Ulysses. These were alongside the artist’s many commissions from around the rock world, such as paintings in honor of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ 2011 release of Mirror Traffic, given as premiums by Matador Records. New York PR companies like Girlie Action and Nasty Little Man commissioned SK paintings as holiday greeting cards. Keene created assorted merchandise for the Dave Matthews Band (which also hailed from Charlottesville in the ’90s). He made 2,000 multiples for Capitol Records to use as party favors. And he created a limited-edition cover for the Band of Horses’ 2016 release, Why Are You OK. The 2020 television remake of High Fidelity (based on the novel by Nick Hornby) features glimpses of Keene’s work on the collaged walls of the record store. And a Keene painting is seen on a wall in the house where his old friend David Berman filmed the video for the Purple Mountains song “Darkness and Cold,” released shortly before the singer-songwriter-poet’s death in August 2019. Keene’s distinctive work had become essential indie-rock wallpaper of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“I don’t think you can separate Steve from music. It’s so important to him,” says Eric Allen, bassist for The Apples in stereo. Before Allen joined, when the band was between bassists, Keene mimed playing bass in the Apples’ video for “Tidal Wave,” in addition to painting backgrounds and props for the shoot. “He doesn’t play a musical instrument, he plays paint. And he considers what he does a performance, even if no one’s watching,” Allen says.
The “album art tributes” that make up much of this book demonstrate that importance. Keene paints famous covers, and covers of albums he likes, as well as covers that have no particular meaning to him other than being an artistic challenge. “I’m making kind of a history of albums,” Keene says. “They’re monuments to something that doesn’t exist anymore.” That something is album covers as essential talismans, harking back to a time when selecting an album at a record store was a thrill, an exercise of taste, a rite of passage.
Looking at one of Keene’s Rolling Stones cover tributes, Efram describes some of the qualities of the work that speak to him. “Here are the Rolling Stones, and Steve loves the Rolling Stones, and he’s painted them in caricature. I totally get who they are, but there’s something about it: He’s added his own hand, his own personality, to the Stones. There’s an inexplicable dimension added—a dimension of humanity that radiates joy.”
“The work is very confident and charming,” Efram says. “He takes his work very seriously, but there’s also an undeniable sense of humor. It’s absurd that he’s chosen to make dozens of pieces a day in this particular way. It’s physically and emotionally demanding to create this much work every day for 30 years. It’s still astounding to me: He truly is a one-man art factory. How can any one person paint all of this by hand? There’s a charm that he continues to create with the same volume and consistency, eliciting the same types of reactions after all of this time.”
Keene also paints portraits of various musicians—Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Otis Redding—as multiples. After Billie Eilish swept the 2020 Grammys, he painted the teenage singer-songwriter in her green-haired phase. He’s also painted pop star Katy Perry, and even took his daughters to her concert. He used to listen to rock while painting, but in recent years his accompaniment is classical music; he recently painted the covers of several albums of orchestral music composed by Igor Stravinsky.
“I remember when I first met him, he told me that his goal was to be the Johnny Appleseed of art,” says The Apples in stereo leader Robert Schneider. “Johnny Appleseed went around the country, in mythology, spreading apple seeds. Steve wanted to go around spreading art so that anybody could have it, anybody could have this great work of art on their walls or in their shops or in their studios and in their dorm rooms.”
“I always thought that being ‘the Johnny Appleseed of art’ was a really good description,” Schneider says. “Because it really is like that. You can go around the country, around the world, every record store, every thrift store, every little used clothing shop you go into, every bookstore, every used bookstore, somewhere in there, there’s a Steve Keene painting. Maybe it’s leaning in the back of the store, or it’s displayed prominently at the front counter, or maybe it’s in the bathroom. I mean, all over the country, when I go to shops, I see Steve Keene art. I’ve seen it in Europe. I’ve seen it in Taiwan. I’ve seen Steve Keene art all over the world. He’s throwing these seeds out, these paintings, they’re flying out over the wind and they end up at the farthest place from Brooklyn, New York.”