Forty-year-old painter Stephen Keene got to work early the other day, started and completed 96 landscape paintings, went to a rock concert, then went back the next day and did 96 more. Right on schedule, he said, to finish as many as 400 paintings by the end of the week.
Since Nov. 2, Keene has worked in the window of the Goldie Paley Gallery at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, where hordes have waited for the paint to dry on his festively colored works. He has sold all 2,000 paintings he brought with him from his studio in Brooklyn, plus several hundred new ones. They've been carted away by senior citizens, children, homemakers and business people, who slip folded bills into an honor box. Keene, who works 12 hours a day to meet the demand, charges $1 to $5 per painting.
"Well, they're not Rembrandts," he says, with brush in hand and paint splattered all over himself.
True enough. Some of the work is to painting what the pinata is to sculpture. But the Yale-trained Keene says the idea of his six-week performance/exhibit is to make original art accessible to everyone. With postcards or newspaper photos as models, he uses assembly-line techniques, setting up 32 paintings and going down the line with the same brush stroke, acrylic on plywood, repeating the cycle until he has nearly identical scenes. DON'T BE SHY, says a nearby sign. 3 BUCKS EACH. REAL ART.
It's those last two words that have rattled the foundation of the 150-year-old school for women. While Keene works, controversy swirls. Two professors got into a shouting match over the exhibit, and Keene has been called everything from a commercial hack to an antiart subversive.
"It's schlock. It's also mean-spirited and cynical," sniffs academic dean Wayne Morris. "Art attempts to address the human condition," says visiting faculty member Moe Brooker, "and you don't trivialize the human spirit." Nor do you feature "a sideshow" in the window, says student Pam Feldman, when you are collecting $15,500 in tuition from someone who invests "all my time and energy to become a better painter."
But not everyone is in a lather. World-history professor Dan Sipe uses Keene's work in discussing everything from economics to philosophy. As in, What is art? (It was Sipe's musings that prompted drawing professor Steve Sherman to call him a gasbag, at which point the argument degenerated into obscenities.) Art-history student Heather Nash, a Keene fan, says, "I've never seen an exhibit here that produced this much enthusiasm." She's talking about the visitors--some of them doing their holiday shopping--who wait for the gallery to open each day. Darren Check, a law student at Temple University, picked out a $5 skyline for his apartment and said, "This costs less than a poster." David Rosenberg, an attorney, and his wife Lucia, who owns a small business, bought three paintings. Donna Benner, a talk-show producer, was back for her seventh time and had already bought 20 pieces. "I have kids, and it's a way to introduce them to art."
Can all these people be Philistines?