How Brooklyn’s Steve Keene became the most prolific artist in American history

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 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 doing started 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 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 donuts 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 to 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.

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