Jun 16, 2022
When Brooklyn Magazine spoke with Steve Keene on a recent Tuesday, it was on the early side, around 9:30 a.m. Keene — a painter who, in his understated fashion, describes himself as a morning person — had already been up for five hours. He had a dog to walk, he explained. But he also had work to do: He was in the middle of sending 16 orders out, having created 120 paintings in the previous three days alone.
If you’re someone who placed one of those orders, know that he is sorry about the delay. “I feel bad about that because I’ve gotten a lot of press this year,” he said. “Normally I get them out in a couple weeks, but there’s like a five-month waiting list.”
About that press attention: Earlier this year, Tractor Beam and Hat & Beard Press announced a plan to publish “The Steve Keene Art Book,” produced by photographer Daniel Efram, on June 14. The Kickstarter-funded 265-page book is the first art book to exclusively profile Keene, who is arguably one of most prolific American artists.
“I went to art school. I did everything right. Nothing really turned me on until I started doing everything wrong. Until I started giving everything away,” he said, also name-checking Americana painter- predecessors Morris Katz and Howard Finster as inspiration. “I like folk art. I like stuff that comes from the ground.”
That “art school” he went to was Yale, where he got an MFA. These days he buys 400 thin sheets of plywood a year as his canvases and cuts them into eight squares each. He creates, by his estimate, a quarter mile of art a year. He’s sold or given away well north of 300,000 of his paintings, of which he usually creates multiples at a time — slapdash yet distinctive.
“I kind of started this as a stunt, in a way. It’s like, ‘OK, you’re not particularly interested in my painting? You’ll never be able to look away. They’ll be everywhere!’” said Keene, who lives in Greenpoint, where he paints in a studio he calls “the cage.” “It gave me energy. It made me feel punk. ‘I’m gonna kill you with my art!’”
If you live in the borough, you’ve probably seen his work in bars, music venues, coffee shops. You may have a friend who has a Steve Keene original. Maybe you have one yourself. If not, you could pick one up for around $5, which is less than the coffee table book about him that will cost ($95) when it comes out. It is less, even, than what you would pay for one of the records by his friends in Pavement or the Silver Jews — whose albums, including “Wowie Zowie” and “The Arizona Record,” feature his art as covers.
“I’m uncomfortable seeing one of my paintings. I like seeing 140 of them all together,” he said. “If you’re any kind of creative person, it’s terrible to overthink it because it can wreck anything good that might come up. It took me most of my life to try to not overthink what I’m doing. I try my best, but I don’t worry about whether it’s good or bad. That’s why if I paint 100 pictures in a day, it’s like, ‘OK, they’re not great, but at least I did 100 of them.’”