The Steve Keene Art Book

In the middle of his big Kickstarter campaign for his book on acclaimed painter Steve Keene, artist Daniel Efram sat down and talked with QRO. ...
The Steve Keene Art Book
The Steve Keene Art Book

In the middle of his big Kickstarter campaign for his book on acclaimed painter Steve Keene, artist Daniel Efram sat down and talked with QRO. In the conversation, Efram discussed how the book originated from Keene’s showing at Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects gallery, Keene’s ‘Johnny Appleseed’ approach to making affordable art for all, the difficulty in picking from Keene’s over 300,000 pieces of art, working with Keene for the likes of The Apples in Stereo and the Grammy-winning Klezmatics record, Keene’s places in both the artist and indie-rock communities, Keene as the ‘anti-NFT’, and much more…

There is a also a great video piece by Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo!

UPDATE: The Steve Keene Art Book Kickstarter has made it’s goal, and will be release June 14th, 2022!!!

Steve Keene

QRO: How have you been holding up during all of this?

Daniel Efram: It’s been tricky. This project was scheduled to kickstart last year, literally the day we got news of [COVID] and I’ve been working on it on & off for five years

I, for obvious reasons, didn’t feel right about, people were fearful about what was going on. It was a huge question mark.

So, for me, this was my next project. I’ve been working on it on & off for five years.

The Clash : London Calling

QRO: Since the Shepard Fairey gallery showing?

DE: Yeah.

I’ve been working with [Keene] on-and-off in many different ways for like two-and-a-half decades, so I’d always had something to do with him occasionally. When I offered to try and get some shows for him, it was just purely out of, ‘I think the guy’s genius. I just think he deserves to be more well-known.’ And I thought, ‘Well, if he hadn’t had a show in a while, he’s not the type of person that’s really  gonna go out there and really push himself, so maybe I’ll help him if he wants it.’ And he said, ‘Okay, why don’t you try.’

In essence, one of the things about the Shepard Fairey show that was so exciting was that, I had worked with Shepard on something prior to that, and I remember asking Steve, ‘Where would you want to do a show if you had your choice?’ I think that I said, ‘Would you be interested in this gallery?’ I’m not close friends with Shepard Fairey or something like that, but I just thought, ‘Well, I could approach them, if you’re into it?’ And so, I did approach him.

Shepard has been so supportive, he and his staff have been super helpful.

I remember, I was out in L.A., prior to this all happening, and I had been there for a while. I don’t know if it was a week or two. I literally had two days left. And then it dawned on me – I was working on a different project – ‘Oh, I should have gotten in touch with Shepard. He lives out here, I guess? I don’t really know him, but he lives out there, I should at least reach out…’

I was on Venice Beach at the time, and I hastily sent out an e-mail to literally [email protected], and just said “Steve Keene” in the subject, and something like, “Are you a fan?”

[Fairey]’s certainly got a lot of people working for him. He doesn’t answer the phone or whatever. But he literally e-mailed me back, I think within thirty minutes, “I’m a huge fan.” And it’s not like he remembered me, either – it was coming in cold.

And so, I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ He’s like, “What do you want?” I was like, “Would you think about a show, maybe?” He said, “Come on in tomorrow” – I was leaving in two days – “Come in tomorrow, we’ll talk.” I went in, and he literally said, “When do you want to do a show?”

I didn’t have to pitch. He was just like, ‘How can I help?’ It was just so perfectly timed.

I think the guy’s genius. I just think he deserves to be more well-known.

I think the beautiful thing about Steve is that he has such a history of creating. There’s a lot of goodwill because he does things for pretty much nothing, and then people are really excited by the work. I think that’s one of the beautiful things of his ‘Johnny Appleseed of art’ persona that he has. It’s just the joy that you get from looking at his work.

And the non-pressure. I know people who’ve thrown things out; I would never throw out any of his artwork, but you don’t feel that pressure, ‘It’s so precious.’ I think he fully understands that, too. It isn’t precious, but it’s damn good. Every time I look at one of his pieces, I get this joy.

That’s I think what Shepard connected with.

QRO: Thinking about how Keene paints, it’s a little like street art. It’s not like making one masterpiece that costs a million dollars. There’s a repetitive nature, like Fairey’s classic ‘OBEY’…

DE: I look at Steve as in that world.

Most of what Shepard features at his gallery is, not surprisingly, street artists. I think it was a great compliment for him to not only take on – he basically volunteered it – but he recognized Steve as an equal.

They grew up in the same time. Shepard is a true historian of this medium, as well. He remembered that they had been featured in a magazine, together, along with a couple other very influential now, but this was back in the nineties, when really, they were – I wouldn’t say Steve was getting his ’footing’ at that point, because he had probably produced more pieces that anyone imaginable – but still getting known. They both had been featured in the same magazine, and Shepard remembered, and he was right about it.

He’s one of these guys who’s really, when he’s onto you, he’s onto you. I think it speaks a lot to him.

I think the beautiful thing about Steve is that he has such a history of creating.

QRO: You say Steve Keene isn’t one to do the big promotion. How much has he been involved in this?

DE: He’s a true artist, and he likes to work, and that’s why he’s done so much of it, and he’s comfortable in it. This is my impression – he may disagree with what I say, if he even reads it.

He’s very comfortable in his world, and he doesn’t want to deviate very much “from” it.

It’s kind of like the curation part. He’s done a bajillion different types of shows, art fairs, WFMU Record Fair… my role isn’t any more important that Jonathan LeVine doing a show with him at CBGB’s Gallery back in the 90’s.

Because of the nature of his work, I don’t think anyone else documented the work. And I’m a photographer. And at that time, when I was working on this show, I was really just getting my toes in the water for photography. I was taking shots of everything…

And so, I thought, ‘Wow, they asked me for their catalog, a complete documentation of everything that Steve’s sending them…’ – I told them it was going to be a lot; I don’t think they realized it was going to be 800 pieces…

When I started taking the photos, I thought, ‘Well, if I really want to be a photographer, I should probably consider how they’re being taken.’ And to understand really, he’s just taking photos for Instagram so he can sell them. They’re not archived in any way, they’re not labeled, I don’t think, in any way, so maybe this will be important at some point.

That’s literally what I thought, ‘I’ll take ‘em right, and it’ll be good exercise for me. And then maybe something will turn out.’ And because the show went so well, I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know what’ll happen with me & Steve down the line, in terms of working on other shows together, but these photos might be worthwhile in pursuing.’ And then it became, ‘They’re pretty good, afterwards, the show went so well, maybe we should make a book about this?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, go make a book. I don’t want to be involved in it.’ He literally said, “I don’t want to be involved in it.”

He’s a true artist, and he likes to work, and that’s why he’s done so much of it, and he’s comfortable in it.

Which is a little bit harrowing, in a way, because this is something I really want him to like. It’s not just about the photos and the book. I’ve gotten some really good interviews with people, text and company.

I would love to deliver a bunch of books to public libraries and art schools. I can’t cover everywhere, but I would love to cover some in Brooklyn, and in his hometown in Charlottesville. And if we’re able to do more, even better.

I really think his whole process is fascinating to me. And experiential – the whole idea of selling seven pieces for sixty dollars, randomly, and then they show up, and ‘Oh my god, these are so cool!’ But not knowing what you’re getting – the only time you get to choose is when there’s a show.

Beastie Boys : Check Your Head

I just think that SK’s whole process of selling art to people who have no idea what exactly they are getting… there’s something really beautiful about this.

There’s also something really annoying to other people, who are like, “Well, I’m a completist. I like to collect.”

Part of the reason why I did the book was also, the show, we sold like 500 pieces the first night, which is insane. They couldn’t handle the volume, and that wasn’t surprising, necessarily, except that it was L.A., and I hadn’t seen how it would go. Never know.

But what I did know is that, for my own, I wanted fifty pieces, specifically of album covers, because I’m from the music world. I wanted a million of these, but I can’t put them all up; I don’t have the room. So, what are you going to do? Well, make a book, for the music lover.

And then it turned into, well, he’s got such a variety of works. So now, some of this is perhaps being changed a little bit as I go, as the campaign moves forward, to include some other stuff as well.

QRO: Is this why you based the book around the gallery opening? At least the gallery opening narrowed it down. How do you pick?

DE: Exactly right.

There was no way to do it, because he does literally hundreds of different paintings. There’s abstracts, there’s his floral stuff, there’s stuff that he doesn’t do anymore which is really important, like the presidents, which he doesn’t do as much anymore.

He wakes up, and he’s inspired to paint, but he’s inspired to paint what he wants to paint. That’s why he doesn’t take requests. Occasionally he’ll do it, but he says he never takes request. He’s not inspired to do it.

It’s his work. He can do whatever he wants.

Steve Keene

That’s the thing about him & a book, as well. It can’t just be this little thing.

I’ve been a fan for a long time, I’ve hired him and commissioned him for dozens of pieces at this point. I’ve managed musicians most of my career, and so I’ve hired him for a lot of different projects.

He’s done so much work, if there’s a book that comes out, and it doesn’t give the weight – the literal weight – to what he’s done, that’s not what I want to be a part of.

I want to show how important he is to a not-so-small indie arts community.

Silver Jews : Arizona Record

I also think that, when I got to New York in ’93, his works were a part of my growing up here in sort of the ‘indie-rock scene,’ because he was at half the shows, selling stuff on his own. A lot of my community that are friends of mine at this point, we’re all talking about which S.K.s we have. It’s this community I’m trying to reach.

To get people to help with this project, we have to spread the word. Spreading the word through sharing, it’s such a beautiful thing because everyone that has something of his, has some type of anecdote of how it happened. And I just think it’s fascinating.

That community was started that way with me, where we were all buying it at the merch tables in New York, and then it became like, well, we’re back to that, in a way. A lot of us have moved out, but we had him from then, and I kind of want to bring people together with it, as his work I think has brought people together.

The Apples of Stereo : Electronic Projects For Musicians

QRO: You managed Apples In Stereo, and had his works with The Klezmatics. How did you go about picking in those situations?

DE: The Apples already had their own a relationship with Steve earlier. They worked with him from ’93 on; they’ve had a number of albums with him.

QRO: And The Klezmatics?

The Klezmatics : Wonderwheel

DE: That was a fun one.

To put it in perspective, originally, I was one of the people that was involved with a compilation record at this label Zero Hour. We did a Threadwaxing Space Live album.

In essence, the company & I, and the owner of the company, we went to these shows at the Threadwaxing Space, primarily myself. We asked if they wanted to do a compilation, and of course, his work was on the wall, so [curator] Sam [Brumbaugh] was like, ‘It has to be Steve Keene’s work on the album cover.’ That was like ’94, ’95, when we started talking & doing something. Of course, it had to be.

Interestingly enough, the designer that I had brought into Zero Hour as a freelancer is now a somewhat famous artist as well, Ryan McGuinness (Instagram quote on Steve Keene). And so, he did the design work with Steve, and became a fan of Steve’s. I think he’s from Virginia as well, so they shared this thing. Again, very happenstance.

So, Ryan put together the mechanicals for it, but it was Steve’s presidents – it was called The Presidential Compilation. And so, it was just so obvious.

And that was really the first time I was involved with it. It wasn’t my idea, necessarily, but that was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re gonna be able to use him? Amazing, how great!’

From there, at that label, we ended up hiring him to do a take-off on A Christmas Gift For You, a Phil Spector Christmas album that we reproduced with our artists, and we had him present the artwork for it, again, as a salute to the original album. From there, other things happened.

This is something I really want [Keene] to like.

Getting to The Klezmatics thing, it was a really fascinating project. I was hired to manage The Klezmatics, who are klezmer band, an Eastern European folk group. But they were asked by Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, and at the time the administrator/executive producer of The Woody Guthrie Archives, to create music for his published lyrics that didn’t have music.

She said, “You know, we lived on Brighton Beach. We should explore this multi-cultural thing, because we were raised this way, and Woody raised us this way. So, he would want something else here. It wasn’t just ‘American folk,’ it was world music.” This was all world music to them.

I remember Nora, we sat down, we introduced ourselves, and she said, “Hi, I’m Nora. And we expect a Grammy on this record.” I didn’t even really know the whole project yet, but this was my first introduction to her. I think she expected that I knew more about what it was. Anyway, she’s explaining it to me, and I kind of had a vague understanding.

Getting to the Steve Keene part of this is that, when we were envisioning this, a lot of the marketing came back to me, trying to figure out, ‘Okay, how do we find a label for this sort of odd collaboration? And also, how do we present it?’ Because, obviously, Woody is gone…

And everything that I had seen of these types of collaborations when someone’s gone is some bad photoshop job, trying to make the band age their photo to the age of the original photo, or something like that.

What ended up happening was, I think I was reading Bound for Glory or one of the Guthrie books, and I read that he was a sign painter. And then I was like, ‘Steve’s a sign painter! That’s what it comes down to. He works on wood…’

Woody Guthrie, besides writing songs, to make money for his family, he made signs. And this was just perfect – I know the guy who can do this.

And then it became all, ‘We can do replications of the band, and Woody, and it will be actual folk art, because that’s what it is! This is actual folk art!’ It turned out to be a really successful album.

QRO: You got the Grammy…

I read that [Woody Guthrie] was a sign painter. And then I was like, ‘Steve’s a sign painter! That’s what it comes down to. He works on wood…’

QRO: There are also going to be a number of interviews about Keene in the book, including with Fairey, Brumbaugh, Robert Schneider & Eric Allen (Apples In Stereo), and musicians Steve West and Bob Nostanovich (Pavement), and both. How did you go about getting those? I guess you already knew Apples & Fairey…

DE: The Apples are easy, because they’re my clients, and I knew they know Steve, and I wanted people who really knew Steve.

At first, I expected to write everything as well. But, as it would turn out, I was really unable to push forward with that in mind. I can write, but something blocked me, in that regard.

In terms of the idea of who, I just wanted to get a real semblance of who could provide the history, that would provide the weight for the book. Though I know a lot of these art books are not heavy on the text, I wanted the text to be rigorous.

Pavement : Wowee Zowee

That said, I got these great interviews with people. The Pavement guys were very happy to speak with me, very quickly (Instagram post of Spiral Stairs’ copy of the artwork of their seminal record Wowee Zowee). Of course, Malkmus is very difficult to get…

QRO: Believe me, I know. I’ve been trying to interview him for years…

DE: The way I’ve approached it now, with doing the Kickstarter, I realized, ‘This really does represent the indie community in a way I hadn’t really thought at first.’ And I think that happened when I literally started to really prepare for this Kickstarter, as opposed to last year’s. A unique community, you miss your friends, and I started to think, ‘Who might have an opinion on this? I haven’t talked to them in a while, because…’ ‘This would be a nice thing to talk to them about, wouldn’t it?’

So, when I e-mailed Mac [McCaughan] from Superchunk, and others, it just was like, yeah, they’d be happy, of course, to write something, and I’d get an extra perspective from them about what they thought.

I wanted it to be really relevant to, of course, the indie-rock community that really understood this stuff, and fortunately I picked people that could help me. I’ve gotten so many more quotes than what were listed.

And, what I’ve also realized, again, through the nature of this virality, how do we get to people, it was very important to me to find art historians, or a historian that would really be the person, not just to be interviewed for this, but to potentially even write their own small art criticism of Steve.

Because, again, this is his first thing, it’s gotta be, in my opinion, a huge shot across the bow of like, ‘If you don’t know who Steve is, you need to pay attention.’ The way to do that is through, of course the indie-rock community, people will be interested in this, because of the people who will be quoted in it. But, it’s gotta have that art history perspective as well.

The Beatles : Abbey Road

QRO: Is it at all a little tricky, combining music and art?

DE: I put out my own art book of photography a couple years ago, as well, and I kind of got some good perspective on that. On a different level; it’s black-and-white, street noir photography.

When I was talking to artists, ironically, fairly well-known artists that I’m fortunate enough to know, ‘I’m trying to find the right person specifically in the art world to talk about it,’ they were like, ‘Why do you need someone in the art world to talk about it? If you have these musicians that are fans of it, that’s all that really matters…’

In essence, they gave me license to say, ‘Look, you want people to read the book.’ The art world gets stuck at being in the art world. In a way, Steve has been blissfully outside of that for a long time. He’s not really accepted in the same way because, he’s not looking for NFTs…

QRO: I literally was going to say his work is the opposite of NFTs – great physical art for a low price…

DE: I’ve actually called him recently the ‘anti-NFT’…

I’m prepared to be surprised by him on almost anything. I love the guy. He’s a difficult person in a lot of ways, but I love the guy. I truly believe he’s a genius.

Motörhead : March or Die

I can’t imagine him embracing NFTs at all. But I could be surprised.

QRO: And where did the great idea of making the book box set vinyl size come from?

DE: I came up with that.

The idea of the record size was just obvious to me. I knew that when I played my records, I wanted to have this book next to it. I could just pull it out. If a friend’s over, we could look over which albums I actually had in the book.

And also, he makes the 12” size.

I thought it would be a convenient place for most of my friends that probably still have records, because that’s the world I live in. I’m sure most of them do. They probably put it on their record shelf.

QRO: And how did you go about recruiting designer Henry Owings for the book?

DE: Well, Henry, first of all, he knows Steve. Secondly, he knows Robert from The Apples. He’s the head of the Elephant Six Archive.

So, Steve will be pleased with him. I’ve always seen his work, and it’s been great.

QRO: I loved his designs on the Hüsker Dü box set, Savage Young Dü (QRO review)…

DE: Again, he’s a part of the circle of the indie work. It just makes sense. He’s been in it as long as I have, doing something, doing design, doing his fanzine, whatever it was.

All the people who are involved, it just makes sense.

Steve Keene

QRO: He makes such inexpensive art. Is there any tension with the book being nice, and not costing just five dollars…

DE: Well, you do what you can.

It definitely is something that, when I was pricing out the cost of the actual production of the book…

You asked if it’s a concern; sure, it’s a concern. But, by the same token, most of my friends at this point, they’re buying the box sets that are two hundred dollars, New Order or something. When a box set is two hundred dollars, and a lot of art books are two hundred dollars, that are massive art books. You can’t skimp on it…

And it’s gotta be high quality! Because if we want Steve to be taken seriously – and I think he’s taken seriously by this crowd. If we want him to be taken seriously, it’s gotta be produced in a way that’s serious.

I’d like very much to print it in the U.S., if at all possible. I think that’s important, too. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that, based on a lot of things, depending on how it morphs over the next month or so…

QRO: And international shipping…

DE: Very few people, I’m sure, are buying it from overseas. Or the ones that are, are getting it shipped to friends in the States that they can visit later.

I am concerned about it, but, by the same token, you have to draw the line in the sand.

On a final note on this, I only want to work on something that’s great. If it’s not great…

QRO: I suppose you can’t ever sell the book at concert merch tables. I was thinking specifically of the Pavement reunion at Primavera Sound next year…

DE: [laughs] If we make enough books.

It really just comes down to what happens when people see the book.

Will Steve or the band want to sell it? I don’t know. I think it would be cool. I’d be into it.

Because this dude made all this, he sent it to me for this, it’s nothing, and it is everything.
And I just want to represent that joy.

I believe this could be a really important book for people.

Think about when we’re hopefully delivering this too, at the end of the year, holiday time. This is a great gift!

I think this is the type of thing, people that aren’t aware of him, when they finally look at this. Because, again, it’s gonna be a certain clique that knows this stuff, and is contributing to the Kickstarter, etc., and making this happen.

But I really think that when other people see this book – and this is my goal – that they’re like, ‘I slept on Steve Keene, and I shouldn’t have. And I’m gonna go but the six pieces for seventy dollars…’

But more importantly, the conversation that his art is more than just his crazy ethic that he has, it’s bigger than that. I think he deserves to be in the conversation about important contemporary artists.

There’s a lot of people who know of Steve, in this, ‘I found this, and I bought it, and it turned out to be amazing!’ I want to somehow represent that joy that people get, when they open up the package, and they didn’t know what they’re getting, and they just flip out. Because this dude made all this, he sent it to me for this, it’s nothing, and it is everything.

And I just want to represent that joy.

Robert Schneider of The Apples In Stereo debuts new song for Steve Keene: