Is the prolific New York artist a chain Picasso or a cynical hack?

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It’s a gray and drizzly October day in New York City, but on the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, ChaShaMa Gallery has its doors wide open to the street. There is an artist at work inside and the public has been invited to watch. He has 48 sheets of plywood set up on wooden trestles, and he prowls around them, adding a bold stroke here and there, moving quickly from frame to frame, working tirelessly in circles, building up layers and only stopping to mix a new color. He painted multiples in groups of six, and today his subject matter is famous writers, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His name is Steve Keene. He’s a wiry, bespectacled 65-year-old man who exudes a prickly, nervous energy. And because he produced more than 300,000 works of art – at the rate of around 40 to 50 a day – he is often dubbed the most prolific artist in history.

I’m here to see how he does it, to investigate why he does it, and to find out why he charges so little that he almost gives his art away.

Steve Keene in his home workspace, a studio surrounded by a chain-link fence that he affectionately calls “The Cage.”Credit:New York Times

I knew Keene’s work through 90s indie rock, originally via Pavement’s 1995 album cover Wowee Zowee, which he painted. He has also created illustrations for Silver Jews, The Apples In Stereo and Band Of Horses. You can even see a young Keene hard at work in the video for the Triffids’ 1997 single Save what you can.

Keene and his wife met and befriended David Berman of Silver Jews and some of the future members of Pavement when they all volunteered as DJs at their college radio station WTJU in Charlottesville, Virginia. He first sold his art at rock shows, charging only a few dollars for each painting and using an honor system, using a wooden box with a slot in the top to collect the money.

Not much changed since those days. This month-long residency in Brooklyn also includes a retrospective of his work, showcasing around 100 paintings on loan from collectors across the United States. The month culminates with the official launch of Steve Keene’s Art Booka lavish 265-page tome that includes reproductions of his work, essays by artists Shepard Fairey and Ryan McGinness, and notes from musical luminaries such as Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who wrote: “Keene is the rare artist, like Bo Diddley or Stevie Wonder, from whom one can only feel joy.

This joy is a common response to his work, and Keene sees it as a dialogue with the people who own his art.

“I try to make my art accessible,” he says, taking a break from painting and sitting cross-legged on a drop sheet on the gallery floor, wearing a button-up shirt, baggy shorts and sneakers, all splattered with Paint. “Because my paintings are cheap, I like it when people have six at a time and they hang them together and then it creates a narrative, like a comic book. They might have one with flowers and one with a castle and one with Bob Marley, and hang them together. I like to have people participate in what I do that way.

Album covers by New York artist Steve Keene.

Album covers by New York artist Steve Keene.

Keene painted live in exhibitions and residencies at venues including the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Public Library, received commissions from public relations firms and record labels, and his work has hung in David Chang’s restaurants and appeared in the recent TV remake of High fidelity.

I love that you can see my work anywhere…your cousin’s house, a bar or a laundromat.

Steve Keen

But despite its popularity, its indie rock spirit remained. Keene’s prices are still ridiculously low and his methods of selling via his website are unorthodox. He’s asking US$70 ($110) for six paintings, but Keene chooses all six, so buyers don’t know what they’re getting until the package arrives.

“The idea is that people trust me, so I try to give them a good range and a good deal,” he says. “I think of my paintings as fanzines or trading cards. I want everyone to be able to afford original artwork and I love the fact that you can see my work anywhere. You might see it at your cousin’s house, or at a bar, or at a laundromat.

“Some people don’t understand why I sell my art for such a low price, but I see beautiful graffiti on the walls and it’s free, so what’s the difference? I’m just obsessed with creating art and then bringing it to the world.

Normally he works from his home studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at a place he calls The Cage. It is a space equipped with a chain-link fence, where he can hang up to 96 pieces of plywood to be painted simultaneously. He often works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week.

Steve Keene at work on his portrayals of Virginia Woolf.

Steve Keene at work on his portrayals of Virginia Woolf. Credit:Daniel Efram

“But, for me, it’s also a work of art,” he says, waving an arm around the public painting space. “I’ve done this kind of stuff in several places and it’s like a performance. When people buy the paintings, I hope they like them, but I consider the finished product to be just part of the artwork. Doing it is what I love. The process of working on them is what’s beautiful.

Over the years, his work has been labeled everything from folk art to naive art, and he’s been compared to the likes of Morris Katz (aka the “King of Schlock Art”) and Howard Finster. (a Baptist artist and pastor who claimed to be inspired by God).

Inside ChaShaMa Gallery during Steve Keene's month-long residency.

Inside ChaShaMa Gallery during Steve Keene’s month-long residency.Credit:Daniel Efram

In the book, Shepard Fairey, who created the famous Barack Obama Hope poster, beg to differ. “Steve Keene’s work seems simple, perhaps even naïve at first glance, but make no mistake about it,” Fairey writes. “There is a very ambitious and sophisticated set of ideas and techniques that drive his prodigious output.”

A 1997 profile in Time nicknamed “the Picasso on the chain”. In this story, a reviewer called Keene’s work “cynical and mean-spirited schlock”; it’s been covered in everything from a business hack to an anti-art subversive. In fact, Keene is steeped in art history and has an MFA from Yale. But he seems oblivious to the labels people have given him over the years.

Steve Keene in his Brooklyn studio.

Steve Keene in his Brooklyn studio. Credit:New York Times

“Someone once called me a conceptual folk artist, and I don’t mind at all,” he shrugs. “In a way, I had to unlearn things. Often, if I paint loosely and quickly, the strokes work better than I could have anticipated. The paintings are like my writing, in a way.

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Keene has cited Matisse, Van Gogh, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt and 1970s minimalist art as influences, and bases many of his paintings on album covers or images found in old books, postcards and magazines. Over the years, he has consistently maintained his prolific production and working methods.

“One of the reasons I like doing multiple paintings at once is that I like being surrounded by art. It’s like when you’re younger and you fall in love with Pollock, that you see pictures of him literally surrounded by his painting, or you go to Venice, where everything is art, from the walls to the floor to the ceiling, then you’re immersed in it. For me, it’s like I’m working on a single work of art for 35 years, and everyone gets a little piece of it.

So what does he think of Steve Keene’s Art Book?

“It’s great, but, you know, I haven’t really read it or looked at it too closely,” he said, scratching his head. “I have this phobia of art books. I buy a lot of them and I never remove the plastic wrapping. I just like the idea of ​​them. So this book is the ultimate in art book phobia, because it’s about me. I’ll look at that one day.

Keene is not one to look back. He always thinks about tomorrow’s work. It all goes back to his early days and how he adopted a work ethic that he maintains to this day.

“I’ve always been drawn to rookie rock bands, how they all get in a van with their instruments and a shoebox of tapes and drive five hours to play in front of 18 people. I like the impossibility and the Don Quixote character of this one. You end up doing it for yourself whether people like it or not. I can understand that.”

As to whether he intends to ever quit, he just shakes his head at the question. Does he think he could die with a brush in his hand, lying on the floor of The Cage? “I hope that happens,” he said, offering a rare smile.

And then he gets up off the floor, stretches and goes back to work.

Steve Keene’s Art Book is available now at hatandbeard.com

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