How did Steve Keene make 300,000 paintings? Lots of room for easels.

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How did Steve Keene make 300,000 paintings? Lots of room for easels.
The artist Steve Keene puts the finishing touches on some of his paintings, which often include lo-fi renderings on plywood of album covers, at his home studio in New York, Oct. 18, 2022. 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. (Lila Barth/The New York Times)

by Melena Ryzik

NEW YORK, NY.- When 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 past 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 DJ 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 such as Pavement, Silver Jews and the Apples in Stereo. He earned a master’s degree in fine arts 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 such as restaurateur David Chang, who hung a 12-foot Keene at Momofuku in Toronto. His prodigious output and enduring do-it-yourself ethos is cataloged, for the first time, in “The Steve Keene Art Book,” out this month.

In essays and commentary by Shepard Fairey, downtown gallerist Leo Fitzpatrick, artist Ryan McGinness and 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.

“To me, one of the things that has cemented his importance is, here’s an artist who has a full understanding of the traditional art world, but chooses a pathway that is about directly making art and sustenance in a very modest way,” said Daniel Efram, a photographer and the Apples in Stereo’s manager, who produced the book. “This is a 30-year affordable art experiment that he’s been undertaking. It’s dramatic, it’s joyful and it’s created a community of fans that are very loyal.”

Thanks to a recent influx of attention, Keene’s website, where he sells bundles of paintings for $70, has been overwhelmed with orders. Efram, who has known him since the ’90s, crowdsourced the book, borrowing hundreds of pieces from around the U.S. to photograph. “People see his work and they smile,” he said. “I think because it’s vibrant — and because it’s a really good deal.”

Fairey, the street art star, said he owned more than half a dozen Keenes, and called him an inspiration. “He’s mixing gestural or impressionistic mark-making with pop and underground imagery in an assembly line that yields repetition with variation,” Fairey wrote in an email. “He’s like a folk hero Warhol.”

What has enabled Keene’s grand-scale, low-priced career — besides the foresight to acquire a 90-foot-long home studio early on — is Starling Keene, 63, director of architecture for the city’s Department of Design and Construction, an agency responsible for helping to actually build New York. It’s more logistics than glamour: Her favorite project lately is a giant fuel yard and administrative depot for the Department of Transportation.

In previous roles, she has also created a mansion in the hills for a Hollywood heavyweight and helped erect Little Island, the Hudson River park, as a partner in Standard Architects. (The British firm Heatherwick “designed it,” she said, “but we had to make it work.”)

When I visited the Keene household, I asked about her own architectural style. After mulling it over for a while, she called it “industrial hermit crab.”

“Because I do love an existing space, and then reacting to it, more than almost anything else,” she explained. “The willingness to constantly change — I do love that, too.”

The Keenes’ thrifty fluidity is on ample display in their home. As the couple raised two daughters, now college age, Steve Keene’s studio had to shrink, and they encircled it with a backyard-style chain-link fence that he affectionately calls “the cage.” It was inspired by the 2001 Frank Gehry exhibition at the Guggenheim — in Gehry’s early projects, the architect used the outdoor material “as color on a facade, because it changes the light,” Steve Keene said.

Also, Starling Keene added, “We did need a way to separate the toddlers” from the paint-splattered studio.

In the past dozen years, guided by Starling Keene’s design and engineering know-how — “My claim to fame is, I taught Steve trigonometry in one day,” she said — Steve Keene has also built just about every stitch of their furniture, most of it white and curlicued. Made entirely of interlocking wood pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, it doubles as stairs, storage and artistic display, not to mention hiding spot (or launchpad) for their four cats and two dogs.

“Star’s always trusted me visually,” Steve Keene said, looking at his wife. “She’s always trusted me when I wanted to do things — like, I remember calling you up and I said, ‘Is it OK? I took out the bathroom ceiling.’”

In January, they will celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Steve Keene’s exhibitions often involve him doing live painting, and the couple’s latest thrill is in crafting custom-made displays for each setting, from just a rough sketch — they are so conversant in each other’s drawing style that, he said, “people don’t like to play Pictionary with us.”

“I couldn’t do this without her,” he added, of his work. “I’m very artsy and she’s super logical. I mean, she’s a better artist than me, a better painter and a better everything else.” (Starling Keene has lately been engrossed in fiber arts, making an abstract weaving inspired by the Citi tower in Queens, in the fog.) “When I run into any kind of problem, she solves it.”

Their artistic inclination to repurpose materials collides, frequently, with domesticity: an aluminum foil chandelier that Steve Keene made for a daughter’s fourth birthday party is still up; plastic grocery baskets serve as drawers in their closet — an ingeniously constructed space, like an inverted boat, with a scalloped trellis that also supports their loft bed. “It’s like being inside a little cloud,” Starling Keene said.

The couch — constructed from floor pillows she stitched, and covered in a serape-style blanket — rests on a platform made of hundreds of large wooden canvases. They’re a new, engraved style that Steve developed in the past decade and has hardly exhibited yet.

“He rarely likes to do things that other people ask him,” Efram said. “He has to feel it, and I really respect that.” The Keenes seemed surprised to find that, at a recent exhibition that Efram curated in Brooklyn, he was able to sell some larger Keene pieces for substantially more than normal — they were $150.

Over the years, Starling Keene said, they have wondered whether they could make more money from Steve Keene’s paintings. But he likes to price them low so they’re “irresistible,” she said. And besides, the art world hustle has never interested him.

“He doesn’t want to even think about, like, is somebody going to think one is good and one is bad,” she said, “which is why he makes so many.”

He allowed Efram to produce the book on the condition that he didn’t have to get heavily involved. “I still haven’t really sat down and looked at it, page by page,” Steve Keene said. “It’s just overwhelming. It’s wild that it’s a static thing, it doesn’t change.”

As much as his work is about an iterative process, it’s also revitalizing to him with every brush stroke, he said. “I think the reason why I have so much energy to do this, it’s because every week it’s new — stuff goes to UPS, I don’t see it, so I need more work.”

“Everybody has these rituals,” he added. “Making art for me became that system of losing yourself, or finding infinity. Or something.”

“Or something!” Starling Keene repeated, and they laughed together.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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