Steve Keene, 'World's Most Prolific Painter,' Sets Up Shop at Brooklyn Public Library

Steve Keene Film Still - H 2014
Matthew Allen

Steve Keene Film Still - H 2014

The longtime Brooklyn artist known for indie-rock album covers will paint in public throughout the summer.

NEW YORK – Three days a week this summer, an internationally known artist will go to work on the patio of the Brooklyn Public Library, painting in the open air as onlookers watch. Once the paint dries, visitors will have a chance to buy a piece for themselves.

For 10 bucks a pop.

Steve Keene, who became famous among '90s indie-rock fans for making album covers for bands including Pavement and The Apples in Stereo, has always identified more with musicians than with gallery-based visual artists. He wants his work to offer an inspiring art experience that's as easy as buying a CD, so he makes paintings as quickly as possible — lining up cheap plywood panels and, assembly-line-style, creating the same image on each one. Then he sells them as cheaply as he can.

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"I've really never connected with the idea of uniqueness and scarcity," he said Thursday, as he started the first weekend in a residency lasting through mid-August. "It's like the opposite for me: If there's a million of 'em, it must be better than just one unique thing." He estimates he has sold around a quarter-million paintings — many made at rock clubs while bands performed, others sold online, where fans order without knowing what painting they'll get in the mail. This output might've qualified for a world record, but the Guinness arbiters refuse to count multiples of one image as individual paintings, regardless of the inevitable variations in each piece. (Guess they'd say Claude Monet only did one picture of water lilies.)

Keene has lived in Brooklyn for two decades, having moved there after growing up in Virginia and studying art formally at Yale. But this is, weirdly, the first time a New York institution has showcased his work. "I'm so unambitious," Keene explains, saying that museums in Germany, Los Angeles and elsewhere have come to him instead of the other way around. (As if to make up for the oversight, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams officially declared June 14 as Steve Keene Day.)

Keene claims to "feed off the energy" of crowds when he sets up away from his home studio, though the soft-spoken man admits he's "not a people person." He cultivates an intense focus when painting in public, generating a "force field" that allows observation but discourages questions from the crowd. He came up with this system of working, he jokes, "because I hate art openings so much. I don't want to talk to anybody, so I'll just work the whole time."

Stints of public painting at institutions like Philadelphia's Moore College of Art and Design have sometimes attracted controversy, with professors and deans complaining that Keene is a charlatan, not an artist. "I like when people get pissed off about, 'Is it art?' " Keene says. "I'm just painting dumb little pictures, but I've had so many people freak out, hate my stuff, whatever. It's always fascinating that it could cause controversy."