Whether you were part of the indie rock scene in the 90s or just a fan of classical music from the fertile indie underground, you’ve almost certainly encountered the art of Steve Keene. The Virginia-born, Brooklyn-based painter has created indelible album covers, posters, stage props, promotional materials and more for bands like Pavement, Silver Jews, The Apples in Stereo, the Klezmatics and more. Again. Beyond that, he has literally created hundreds of thousands of works of art with his own hand that can be found in record houses and stores around the world.
“[Andy] Warhol wanted to be a machine, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat did thousands of pieces very quickly – all of which is wonderful, these guys produced huge amounts of work – but Steve did more than the two of them combined,” says Daniel Efram, a photographer/producer who, alongside Amanda and Shepard Fairey, curated an exhibition highlighting Keene in 2016. “He made over 300,000 pieces with his own hands. It’s a one-man art factory. The story should be clarified on this issue.
Walk in The art of Steve Keene Book, a vinyl-sized tome produced by Efram which will be released on June 14 via Hat & Beard and Tractor Beam. Inspired by the huge success of Keene’s exhibition at Faireys’ Subliminal Projects gallery, Efram – who still has his feet on the indie music scene as manager of The Apples in Stereo – decided it was high time to publish a prolific artist book. And like a painter who has always made a point of creating affordable art with his own hand, Efram took to a Kickstarter fundraising campaign as well as social media, asking fans to tag their pieces “#SKartBook” on Instagram in order to find pieces in the homes of people who span Keene’s decades-long career.
“They’re vibrant, colorful and thought-provoking and sometimes very humorous,” Efram says of Keene’s pieces, citing a bust of Richard Nixon with the words “we saw Beck at Knitting Factory” as a personal favorite. “There are seven months of waiting to put his pieces online. What joy did he spread with these 300,000 coins? He is a major figure in the history of American art.
Keene’s best-known piece might be the album cover for Pavement’s 1995 classic Wowee Zowee; Additionally, in the ’90s Christina Zafiris of Matador commissioned Keene to create one hundred three- to five-foot-tall wooden trees to send to retail outlets as promotional items for Stephen Malkmus & Company. “These trees are still used 25 years later in record stores,” says Efram. “[They have] endurance and a utilitarian purpose. They’re not only flashy, fun, and represent a cool bunch, but they’re good for hanging up your coat. I think Steve would appreciate the idea of people hanging their coats on his stuff.
Steve Keene’s Art Book, edited by chickfactor editor 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 part of her essay “More Than You Asked For: Color & Joy for the People,” which is featured in the upcoming Steve Keene’s Art Book, with Billboard. Read it below and pre-order here.
In the mid-1990s, Keene’s work began to spread far beyond Virginia. Some of his paintings became what had fascinated him: album covers. Silver Jews Freed The Arizona Record in 1993, with western designs by Keene on the cover. In 1995, The Apples in stereo released their first studio album, fun 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 Zoweecame out the same year, with an enigmatic but memorable cover by Keene (based on a photo of two Arab women in burkas and a goat from a 1972 Life publication titled The Arab world).
By then, Steve and Star Keene had moved from Charlottesville to New York. Their friends in the 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 had just been “discovered” and artists moved into warehouses to live on the cheap. with plenty of space to create. The building was owned by Tim Nye, who founded the Threadwaxing Space, a performance venue and gallery in midtown Manhattan. Malkmus, Nastanovich, and Berman lived across the Hudson in Hoboken. Keene began showing his paintings in the huge Threadwaxing Space loft on lower Broadway. One evening when Dan Efram, the creator of this book, went to see a group there, he discovered Keene’s work for the first time in person. There were dozens and dozens of paintings covering an entire wall to the ceiling. There was a wheelbarrow that Keene used to transport his work, and a box for collecting payments: $2 or $5 suggested per piece, or pay what you want. Efram was stunned by the scene. “I picked out three little pieces, put ten dollars in his payment box and left,” he recalled. “The first time I saw it I was blown away. I don’t even know if I hooked up the Silver Jews, Pavement or The Apples to him in stereo at the time.
Over the next 20 years, Efram would work with Keene on many projects. They include albums by the Klezmatics, The Apples in stereo, which he leads, and various projects by Apples frontman Robert Schneider, such as Marbles and Ulysses. These accompanied the artist’s many commissions from the rock world, such as paintings in honor of Stephen Malkmus and the 2011 release of Jicks by mirror traffic, given as a bonus by Matador Records. New York PR firms like Girlie Action and Nasty Little Man commissioned SK paintings as holiday greeting cards. Keene created various merchandise for the Dave Matthews Band (also originally from Charlottesville in the 90s). He made 2,000 multiples for Capitol Records to use as giveaways. And he created a limited edition cover for the 2016 release of Band of Horses, Why are you OK. The 2020 TV remake of High fidelity (based on the novel by Nick Hornby) features glimpses of Keene’s work on the pasted walls of the record store. And a painting of Keene is seen on a wall of the house where his old friend David Berman filmed the video for the song ‘Darkness and Cold’ by Purple Mountains, released shortly before the singer-songwriter-poet died in August 2019. Keene’s distinctive work had become the go-to indie-rock wallpaper of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“I don’t think you can separate Steve from the music. It’s so important to him,” says Eric Allen, bassist for The Apples in stereo. Before Allen joined the band, when the band was between bass players, Keene mimed playing bass in the Apples’ video for “Tidal Wave”, in addition to painting backgrounds and props for filming. “He doesn’t play a musical instrument, he plays paint. And he considers what he does as a performance, even if no one is watching,” Allen says.
The “album cover tributes” that make up much of this book demonstrate this importance. Keene paints famous covers, and album covers he loves, as well as covers that have no special meaning for him other than an artistic challenge. “I kind of do a history of albums,” Keene says. “These are monuments to something that no longer exists.” That something is album covers like essential talismans, recalling a time when selecting an album from a record store was a thrill, an exercise in 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 painted them in caricature. I totally get who they are, but there’s something about it: he added his own hand, his own personality , to the Stones. There is an inexplicable dimension added to it, a dimension of humanity that radiates joy.
“The work is very confident and charming,” says Efram. “He takes his job very seriously, but he also has an undeniable sense of humor. It’s absurd that he chose to make dozens of pieces a day in this particular way. It’s physically and emotionally demanding to create so much work every day for 30 years. It’s still amazing to me: it really is a one-man art factory. How can one person paint all of this by hand? There’s a charm that it continues to build with the same volume and consistency, eliciting the same kinds of reactions after all this time.
Keene also painted portraits of various musicians – Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Otis Redding – in multiples. After Billie Eilish swept the 2020 Grammys, he painted the teenage singer-songwriter in her green-haired phase. He 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 has been 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 his goal was to be the Johnny Appleseed of art,” says Robert Schneider, frontman of The Apples in stereo. “Johnny Appleseed has been around the country, in mythology, spilling apple seeds. Steve wanted to go around spreading the art so everyone could have it, everyone could have this great piece of art on their walls or in their stores or in their studios and in their dorms.
“I always thought being ‘the Johnny Appleseed of art’ was a really good description,” says Schneider. “Because it really is. You can go around the country, around the world, every record store, every thrift store, every little second-hand clothing store you go to, every bookstore, every second-hand bookstore, somewhere in there there’s has a painting by Steve Keene. Maybe it’s leaning in the back of the store, or displayed prominently on the counter, or maybe it’s in the bathroom. I mean, all over the country, when I go to the stores, I see Steve Keene art. I saw it in Europe. I saw it in Taiwan. I have seen Steve Keene’s art all over the world. He throws these seeds, these paintings, they fly above the wind and end up in the farthest place in Brooklyn, New York.