The artist’s studio and living space, created with his wife, Starling Keene, an architect, houses a one-man assembly line of affordable art — enough to fill a new book.
By Melena Ryzik
Oct. 28, 2022
When the artist Steve Keene and his wife, Starling Keene, an architect, spent $140,000 on a dilapidated former auto body shop to live in, in Brooklyn in 1996, it was understood that he would use most of it for his studio space. His brightly painted works are typically not large, but they are numerous: Over the last 30 years, he says, he’s created more than 300,000.
Sold them, too — most for $10 or less apiece. His images, with visible brushstrokes on plywood panels that he cuts himself, are done in rapid-fire multiples: lo-fi renderings of album covers, presidents, streetscapes and pastorals inspired by discount art books from the Strand, sometimes with a lyric or funny non sequitur on top — “just to kind of slow you down, to look at it,” he said. He spends upward of eight hours a day painting, up to 120 canvases at a time, 52 weeks a year. (He doesn’t like to take vacations.) When the Keenes moved into the building, in Greenpoint, they built a nest for themselves in the back, a lofted area with a dorm-room fridge. The rest was easels.
Now, at 65, Steve Keene may still be New York’s most prolific painter, and certainly the one most beloved in ’90s indie-rock circles. A college radio D.J. in his native Virginia, he got his start showcasing his paintings in scuzzy bars during his favorite bands’ sets, and did album art and commissions for groups like Pavement, Silver Jews and the Apples in Stereo. He earned an M.F.A. in printmaking at Yale, perfected his sense of primary color as a commercial silk screener in New York — a job he hated, he said, “though half of what I do is kind of based on that” — and eventually attracted collectors like the restaurateur David Chang, who hung a 12-foot Keene at Momofuku in Toronto. His prodigious output and enduring D.I.Y. ethos is cataloged, for the first time, in “The Steve Keene Art Book,” out this month.
In essays and commentary by Shepard Fairey, the downtown gallerist Leo Fitzpatrick, the artist Ryan McGinness and the musician Chan Marshall (Cat Power), it makes the case for Keene as a cultural signifier, a subversive success — an artist who, though he has shown in galleries, art fairs and museums, still sells (and packages, and ships, via UPS) his work entirely himself, prizing accessibility above all.