Prolific artist Steve Keene embodies the DIY rock ‘n’ roll attitude, having painted over 300,000 works, including iconic album covers from Pavement’s ‘Wowie Zowie’ or Band of Horses’ ‘Why are You Okay’. His distinctive style and technique led him to be described as the “flowing Picasso” by Time magazine. Keane has a democratic approach to art and is known to give away his paintings or sell them for as little as two dollars in an effort to bring art to the people.
Longtime friend and fan Daniel Efram has spent the past six years amassing a photographic collection of Keane’s work. Through the support of Keene lovers around the world, Efram has released The Steve Keene Art Book, a collection of photos and stories that celebrate the incredibly unique world of Steve Keene. Both the artist and producer joined City Lights senior producer Kim Drobs via Zoom for a conversation about the impact of Keane’s philosophy and Keane’s extensive body of work.
Highlights of the interview:
How, as DJs in the 90s, Steve and his wife found a perfect art audience:
“We liked the new music – we were older than a lot of students, so we played a lot of old music and combined it with the new music of the time, which was Nirvana at the time… and just being in the basement surrounded by tens of thousands of albums. And every album was somebody’s dream that it was going to be the greatest album or record of how they lived that year,” Keane recalls.
He continued: “I’ve always loved people making homemade books, little fanzines to promote their writing or their music, and this was before people had websites. Nobody had a computer at home, really. And I just connected with the idea, “Well, why doesn’t art look fun like this?” I went to art school, did all the right things, and loved making art, but I didn’t really know how to network, have an audience, or what kind of people would like my work. So all these things I just threw away and decided not to even think of myself as an artist, but as a person who creates information; little information that goes out into the world.
On valuing the process as much as the finished work:
“I like to paint multiples of the same image, almost like making prints. So I determine the amount that I’m going to paint for that day or that week, depending on how much space I have, and basically I’ll do about 40 or 50 a day,” Keane said. “Then I arrange all the panels in a logical sequence and I’ll start with the first color. It could be blue and I just put my blue stain on all the paintings. Then I go back with the other colors and start with big brushes and finish with smaller and smaller, more detailed, and then finally I sign my name or write a few words.’
Keane continued, “I’ve always loved American art from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, where it’s either minimalism or things like Jackson Pollock, when, I mean, he was feeling in his paintings when he was creating them. He felt that there was no separation between him and the work. It became a performance… Besides musical ideas, I think a lot about abstract expressionist ideas of ‘becoming’ in the painting.”
On the possibly impossible task of a complete Keene collection:
“I mean, it’s impossible to cover all of his work. It’s actually crazy,” Efram said. “But I’ve tried to make as broad a circle as possible of what’s out there, representing from each decade that it works and doing the best I can.” And really, it’s a big book and I’m really proud of it. But it cannot represent his life’s work. It’s just not that. I think Steve said this before and I like that – it’s “greatest hits”. As an album or music artist, it’s a ‘greatest hits…’ but that doesn’t mean it’s the only hits.’
“The Steve Keene Art Book” is out now and available for purchase at https://hatandbeard.com/products/the-steve-keene-art-book.