Christoph Niemann on creating artistic viewpoints and dealing with popularity

Photographs by
Matthew Priestley

Genius is not a word often ascribed to those in the contemporary art world; it’s consigned principally to scientists, philosophers, political leaders. Christoph Niemann may prove to be the exception.

His illustrations, though ostensibly simple, elicit profound reactions, leaving more answers than questions in the minds of those who encounter his work. He breathes life into the mundane, injects joy into the ordinary, and bestows insight into day-to-day living with a few strokes of his pen.

It comes as no surprise. Niemann, whose laundry list of titles now includes illustrator, graphic designer, app developer, author, and social media star, tackles his work like an Olympian tackles a sport: relentless hours, complete dedication to his craft, perfection at all costs. And like all greats, he carries a nagging, constant sense of dissatisfaction with everything he does.

You know who Christoph Niemann is. You’ve seen one of his covers of The New Yorker, you’ve liked a Sunday sketch on Instagram, you’ve watched his episode on Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design; his work and likeness are ubiquitous. And yet, for Niermann, not much has changed. Every weekday from 9AM to 6PM, he’s still at his desk, staring at a blank piece of paper—thinking, designing, and drawing.

What’s the biggest difference between the Germans and Americans? 

It’s like boys and girls: the differences between some boys and other boys and some girls and other girls are way bigger than the differences between the groups as a whole. Many things we observe as cultural differences are just superficial mannerisms.

But from a personal perspective, there is an enthusiasm in America that I’ve been very addicted to since I first experienced it: the idea of cheering somebody on who’s trying to do something, even if it’s weird or overly audacious. Something I appreciate in Germany is the ability to hold two opposing viewpoints and to do so without drowning this conflict in meta-irony.

For someone unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your artistic voice? Have you see any patterns or themes over the years?

The magic is supposed to unfold in the mind of the viewer. What happens on the page is really just a means to that end.

You’ve started to integrate animation and augmented reality into your work. How do you feel about the art and illustration world becoming more digitized? 

Overall, the advantages outweigh the downsides. The biggest upside is that you can get your work to an audience without a middleman. The greatest challenge is how hard it is to stay relevant. Nobody is able to ride a single trick out for 10 years as they used to. If there is something sexy, the whole world catches on fast. Soon after, we grow tired of it because we’ve seen it too often. Instagram filters are obsolete not because they are bad, but because they’ve been too successful.

You’re quite popular on social media, and you’ve talked about your love-hate relationship with the medium before. How does having that instantaneous feedback—both the good and bad—affect your approach to future work? Does
it even? 

It’s all but impossible not to be affected by that reaction. It’s a very nifty system that messes with your emotions very effectively.

I find it impossible to predict what works and what doesn’t, and I try not to see it as a judgment on the quality of the post. For example: an announcement for a show or a new book will not nearly garner as many likes as a funny sketch. But reaching the people who want to go see your art in-person is more valuable than a like from somebody who’s just thankful for a quick laugh, so it all evens out.

We’re not accustomed to knowing how our favorite artists look like and act because we’re usually only familiar with their work. How was it like for you to break that barrier through Netflix’s Abstract? Does it feel odd to be so recognizable now? 

It’s certainly strange now and then to have people come up to me at the airport or on the street. This is happening on a very manageable level, so I can truly enjoy it—it’s a very nice compliment to the whole production team of the series. But I can report that all that has zero effect on what’s happening when I’m back at my desk. Solving a creative challenge doesn’t become any easier after you’ve gained a bunch of followers on Instagram.

You often mull through various iterations of a piece before it takes its final form. At what point do you realize something isn’t working? When do you know it’s time to throw in the towel and start again?

It’s rather the other way around: “isn’t working” is the natural state of an idea. Then I tweak it and try different things, and eventually, I reach a moment when I sense a click—two things coming together that are bigger than the sum of its parts. Then I have to wait for a day, and see if it’s actually any good. A fresh look at a piece 24 hours later is a ruthless but pretty reliable judge.

“The point is to cause an emotional reaction. What I’m after is that beautiful mix of disappointment and epiphany. ”

I’ve heard you say that you spend hours, days, weeks on something just to make it appear as if it took seconds to think of and create. Why is that sort of art appealing to you? Does it irk you when people potentially perceive your work as elementary—something they could easily do themselves? 

A sense of effortlessness is very helpful for an idea to read. It’s like a well-written headline. You want to be inspired by the idea, and not feel like somebody endlessly labored over it. But that, of course, is how most good headlines are written.

I rarely get a comment in the vein of “I could have done this.” What I do hear a lot is “Can you do one of your quick spontaneous drawings for us?” and I realize that they confuse the appearance and emotion of the drawing with its genesis.

When people come across your work, they often smile or laugh; there’s a wit and quirkiness in a lot of what you do. Is that intentional, or does it happen organically? As an artist, are you trying to elicit certain emotional responses from your audience, or do you leave that up to them?

The humor is a side effect. The point is to cause an emotional reaction. And the best way to do this is to build up a certain expectation, and then mess with that setup in an intelligent way.

What I’m after is that beautiful mix of disappointment and epiphany.

Aside from causing emotional responses, are you hoping to make certain statements with your work? I know some of your art carries political undertones; do you try and stay neutral as the artist? 

I consider myself a very political person, and especially in times like these, I spend a lot of time thinking about what art is capable of and what it is not. I guess it works well as a means to motivate your like-minded comrades, but it is less successful at changing people’s minds. Many “controversial” pieces are just a thinly veiled request for applause from your political allies.

What I find more interesting is to use stories to poke people’s minds and mess with the general idea of certainty. Before we can change people’s political minds, we need to create an intellectual curiosity, show—in a way that’s not arrogant—that one can be wrong, that questioning your convictions is good, that things are complicated. It’s less sexy than a smart visual pun on Trump’s latest tweet, but I find it more rewarding.

You do a great deal of writing now, too. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two forms? 

The greatest similarity: Editing is everything!

The greatest difference: With drawings, I can sometimes experience a lucky accident that saves the day. This never happens to me in writing.

At this point, I’m sure there are many jobs you have to turn down. Other than scheduling, what are some reasons why you would say no to an opportunity? 

Obviously, there are some companies that I would not want to support. I’m aware, though, that this is a luxury that not everybody enjoys, and I wouldn’t blame colleagues who can’t afford to be less selective.

I find myself drawn more and more to open-ended artistic briefs. The reason I like those is actually not that I find them easier (in that regard, I prefer a very tight assignment with strict boundaries). But the audience out there today is so visually savvy, that they recognize and reject anything that has the faintest smell of being dreamt up in a conference room by some marketing executives. A more personal approach that relies on “unpitchable” accidents, with all its imperfections has a greater chance of causing an emotional reaction than an image that started with a storyboard and went through ten rounds of revisions.

You’ve obviously grown in your craft over the course of your career. Can you pinpoint what has become easier in the process for you? What weren’t you able to do five years ago that you can do now? 

Drawing is an endless struggle. I think it’s impossible to be ambitious about your drawing skill AND ever truly be content. 

But there is something I worked on with ink drawings: Obviously, there is no Command-Z. Every mark is irreversible. Sometimes you’re halfway done, and you realize that something interesting just happened. That’s when you become afraid of ruining everything, and you become too stiff and scared—and that’s actually how you end up ruining the piece.

I’ve consciously practiced not being scared. I tell myself: “It’s OK if I mess it up, I can always do another one”—and indeed, sometimes I do mess up a fine piece. But by training that muscle, it allows me to ignore that fear and plow ahead with confidence until the drawing is done. 

What’s your take on the concept of relevance? Is it necessary? Does it get in the way of good work? 

I think it’s on every artist’s mind, and it’s wonderful when it happens. I just don’t see how one can plan it. All I can do is to create good work, and maybe try to follow some very basic moral compass. Everything else is luck.

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