The Steve Keene Art Book
Produced by Daniel Efram
Steve Keene is the album cover tribute painter you love but didn’t know you knew, now with a glorious and tantalising 12” art book.
Daniel Efram started thinking about producing The Steve Keene Art Book back in 2013. Nearly a decade later, the book is ready for fans old and new to discover the magnitude of Keene’s work. Brace yourself: he’s done more than 300,000 paintings. Keene has been working for nearly 30 years, and his distinct style has appeared on album covers for bands like Apples in Stereo, Band of Horses, Pavement, and Silver Jews. To say Keene’s art is ubiquitous is a massive understatement for anyone who frequents record stores since his work seems to be everywhere. In Charlottesville, Virginia — where Keene started painting — his Album Art Tributes of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and The Clash’s Sandinista hang on the walls at Sidetracks, one of the US college town’s best-loved record shops. They’re all over New York stores as you might guess, they’re in smaller towns and cities across America, and you can even see them in some London haunts around Camden Town. They’re also at your fingertips: you can buy your own Steve Keene paintings from his website. Some call it street art or folk art, others say demystified art or outside art. Yet as the book reveals, Keene has crafted a style that’s truly his own.
For all those Album Art Tributes, Keene makes multiples of each record sleeve in varying shapes and sizes, often on plywood or found materials. “If you’re an artist, you’re supposed to be focused in your studio, and you don’t want to be interrupted, and you’re worried about whether you’re making a masterpiece. But for me, I treat it as if I run a 16-handle soft-serve frozen yogurt place,” Keene tells me. I smile and laugh, but he’s being honest. One of the most mind-blowing of these works, reproduced to scale as a 12” sleeve in The Steve Keene Art Book, is the artist’s tribute to Big Star’s Radio City. The image on that record, reimagined by Keene’s hand, is itself a picture of photographer William Eggleston’s The Red Ceiling. Meta, meta. If you don’t already know it, you’ll recognise it as soon as you see it.
And there’s no single genre — not even close — for these Album Art Tributes. Keene’s work is truly for the music-loving masses. He’s painted musicians from nearly every realm you can imagine. His work entices lovers of punk, prog rock, yacht rock, country, post-punk, grunge, indie, and everything in between. How does Keene decide which Album Art Tribute to work on any given day? “I have a ton of images in a box,” he says, “and I just flip through stuff. I try not to overthink it because my whole way of working over the past thirty years has been to kind of ‘dumb it down.’ I’ve gone to art school, and I do try really hard, but I like the fact that it’s impossible for me to make a terrific picture. Because if I’m doing 60 of them in a day, there’s a limitation to how much effort I can put into it. So I have to almost shut my eyes and intuitively paint, and I like that I kind of lose control of what I do. It’s incredibly intuitive, almost like sleepwalking. If I’m in the zone, I try to come up with systems that allow me to give up control of what I’m doing because I don’t like to make decisions! My only decisions are how much time I have to work that day and how many panels I’m going to paint. It’s a very conceptual way of painting, making it like a structured game. I’m like a conceptual folk artist.”
I’d always wondered if each of Keene’s Album Art Tribute pieces in a series were replications of one another, with each taking on the nuances or colours (or even missteps) that came in the piece Keene painted just prior. In other words, I was imagining a kind of assembly-line process, where Keene initially painted from an image of an album cover, and then made each additional Album Art Tribute from his own rendering just before it. Turns out, that’s not the way he works at all! In fact, all of the record sleeve paintings are made simultaneously. “I just staple up a picture and I start copying it with blue,” Keene explains. “So I do the blue, blue, blue, blue, then the red, red, red, red, then green, green, green green. So they’re all started at the same time, and they’re finished at the same time.” Keene also paints more than music, from still-life images of gin to presidential portraits and cityscapes. Many (but certainly not all!) of those paintings are collected in The Steve Keene Art Book.
This book is gorgeous. Beautiful printing in full, glorious colour. Fold-out pages. It’s even got essays by artists and writers who have been taken with Keene’s work. In some ways, it’s a coffee table book in the best sense of the term, but it’s also much more. The Steve Keene Art book should adorn the coffee table in the home of every music lover. And wouldn’t that just be perfect? Art, truly, for everyone, although Keene jokes about the difference between the price of the book and the price of his art. “I haven’t really looked inside the book because it kind of makes me feel seasick,” he laughs, but “the craftsmanship is really beautiful, and it’s really, really good quality. And the whole thing is very fun for me because, you know, I sell my paintings for like five bucks, and the book is $95! I love that.” Henry Owings designed it, working with Efram’s idea of the book as a 12-inch LP box set. Ultimately, that’s the size and shape it takes. “I had to make a book that would shout from the rooftops,” Efram says, “of the gravity, the importance of Steve’s paintings in pop culture.” It’s “six pounds of love with a candy cane cover that’ll jump off the shelves.”
To celebrate the release of the Steve Keene Art Book, Efram curated a retrospective of the artist’s work that opened in Los Angeles and is now in New York. The exhibition features 100 of Keene’s pieces that reflect three decades of work. How did Efram decide which to include, given Keene’s more than substantial output? “Some pieces had never been shown before from private collections,” Efram explains to me, “and some were just so exceptional, like a 12-foot-high, 16-foot wide mural that he created in 1994 that I got my hands on.” I’m accustomed to seeing much smaller paintings of Keene’s, so naturally I want to know more about the mural. “It ended up in a friend’s recording studio,” Efram says. “He had holes in the wall in the recording studio that needed to be covered, and because the piece is so big, it looks like the figures are basically your audience. So if you were in a recording session, the musicians in the studio were playing to the audience.” Perfect, absolutely perfect.
It’s clear from speaking with Efram that he’s also a collector of Keene’s work, which probably doesn’t come as a surprise. “I moved to New York in ‘93 or ‘94,” Efram recalls, “and I got a job at a record company and was in the music business, travelling to indie rock clubs in a circuit. Steve just seemed to be at every place I ended up! If I went to Brownie’s, he was there, or if I had a drink at Lakeside Lounge, his stuff was hanging permanently. You couldn’t avoid him [laughs].” Brownie’s was a fabulous club on Avenue A throughout the 1990s, and Lakeside Lounge was a street over on Avenue B from the late ’90s until 2012. The book includes a reproduction of one of Keene’s genre paintings that depicts Brownie’s, dated 1995 in the bottom left corner, and a landscape painting for Lakeside Lounge. “In the best possible way,” Efram continues, “Steve taught me a lot about being able to collect art, and I think that’s really the point of the book: that art isn’t just for the wealthy. It’s about what art means to you, and the ability for people to understand they can collect art that they can afford that will still have a lot of meaning.”
What’s the best thing about the book? I’ll leave you with Keene’s modest words: “It’s incredible. It’s hundreds and hundreds of pictures. But it’s also strange for me because I’ve done 300,000 pieces of art, so that’s only thousands or less that have been recorded in the book. So I’d like the book to feel as if it’s a beginner’s guide to track down my stuff: at yard sales, in junk stores, or in your cousin’s closet.”
Order The Steve Keene Art Book here.
If you’re in New York, The Steve Keene Art Book 30-Year Retrospective at ChaShaMa in Brooklyn Heights runs until October 14, 2022, with an official opening party on September 22. Keene painted live during the Los Angeles exhibition, which he’s also doing at the show in New York.