Christoph Niemann’s Abstract Memories

Q&A | Oct 2017 | BY Jessica Idarraga

Illustrator and author Christoph Niemann pushes audiences to reimagine the world through his eyes with his witty sketches and collages. Niemann’s “Sunday Sketches” for The New Yorker, his live drawings from major international events and recent feature on the Netflix series “Abstract” have propelled him to design rockstar status. Cultured sat down with Niemamn to discuss social media, his retrospective and his relocation to Berlin. “The Master Series: Christoph Niemann” is on display at the School of Visual Art’s Chelsea Art Gallery through November 3.

In what ways have you noticed your artwork changing since the advent of social media?

This is not just for me but for all my colleagues. Traditionally, when you were a designer or maybe even an artist your relation was with a magazine, with gallerists, a museum, or with the curator. They had the relation with the audience. I draw for The New Yorker. The New Yorker is being read by somebody. Later, I have a discussion with the gallerists while people go to the gallery to look at the work. With social media, all these relationships still exist, but also you have a direct connection to your audience. Through comments, likes and follows, you get a much better sense of what works and what doesn’t. This is very interesting because before I always felt you were kind of working to the ether. You didn’t get a reaction back and you just hope that people like it.

People are so incredibly visually intelligent and much more intelligent than I think they have been given credit for. Before the Internet, it was always like, ‘oh no, nobody is going to understand this’ or ‘it’s just too abstract, too strange.’ Now people get very slight subtle visual references and this is something that I have been enjoying a lot.

Illustrator Christoph Niemann has created an augmented reality cover for The New Yorker which transports viewers to an animated cityscape via a ride on the subway.

How has your perspective on NYC changed since you relocated to Berlin?

New York constantly changes. I think a lot of people were bemoaning all the change, which is very obviously happening in NYC. They are of course missing their own youth. I came here when I was 25 and there were certain bars and restaurants which I felt they were the definition of New York and people said, ‘ah this is terrible, you know the 80s that was the real New York.’ I was a fan of the 90s.

I will say that economically it has gotten very obscene. I feel that it’s extremely difficult to experiment when the actual economic pressure is so insanely high. I do feel a little bit like that makes people in general a little more risk averse. There’s nothing wrong with that, but of course creativity lives from not knowing what the outcome will be. That’s the whole point of creativity. In an environment where one wrong move can cost you so much money that you have to have basically an assurance that something will work out, it’s not really helpful for a creative environment.

Has the additional exposure from being featured in “Abstract” had any impact on your life and work?

Definitely. As a designer you usually are known within the industry, if you’re known at all. Stefan Sagmeister once said when you’re a famous designer, you’re like a famous optician. And there is really something to that and with the “Abstract” piece I think it definitely has brought the work to a much broader audience which is very nice and flattering.

School of Visual Art honored Christoph Niemann with the 29th annual Masters Series Award and Exhibition.

Would you say work best on deadlines?

I mean yes and no. I was always fine with deadlines. There are some pieces, like for example the National Geographic piece, it just takes months. When you’re in sports and let’s say you have a certain way you hit a tennis ball, it’s a movement that requires a certain skill set. You can’t slow it down and adjust your grip you have to have it happen in one fluid motion. If you have your stuff together, it takes a half a second to hit a ball. I think that sometimes when you have too much time it slows or breaks the process up and then it stutters and can’t produce a good result. There’s something about drawing and thinking where if you have a very intense few days often it has a much better result than having it spread out over like 2 months with like half an hour here and half an hour there.

The exhibition will be on view from September 30 through November 4 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery.

Photos by Ryan Sobotka

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