The Daily Heller: The New York Public Library Insect Division

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Peter Kuper’s most beautiful work ever—swarms of it—is currently on view at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (and here). His project was made possible by the NYPL’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center Fellowship. INterSECTS: Where Arthropods and Homo Sapiens Meet combines the artist’s appreciation of classic architecture and a lifelong fascination with insects.

Kuper’s intricate drawings include swarms of insects—bees, ants, cicadas, butterflies, silkworms, beetles, dragonflies and more—flying, crawling and interacting with the various rooms of the library. The show also includes excerpts from a graphic novel of the same name to be published by W.W. Norton (“probably in 2024, given how much work I have left to do,” he admits).

“This bug’s-eye view of the building’s Beaux-Arts architectural details illuminates the iconic spaces in a completely original way,” says the NYPL. I couldn’t resist the pun-possibilities, so I asked if I could be a fly on the wall as I bug him with some queries.

What inspired this very unique and surprising opus on the New York Public Library? 
I was fortunate enough to receive the 2020–21 Cullman Fellowship last year. It’s a grant given to 14 various artists, writers and scholars each year. Those selected (past cartoonist/ illustrators include Ben Katchor, Frances Jetter, Gary Panter, Dash Shaw, David Sandlin and Richard McGuire) get a room in the Cullman Center, located on the second floor of the main New York Public Library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. Normally part of the experience is the exchange between fellows, the sharing of ideas, hanging out in the communal space where there are couches and comfortable chairs. The pandemic made that impossible.

Happily, we were still allowed into the building even though it was closed to the public. But with COVID we were discouraged from interacting, and many of the people worked from home. My first day there I felt like crying—getting this amazing opportunity the very year it’s curtailed. The project I had proposed to get the fellowship involved an exploration of insects and how they are related to humans through art, myth, literature, our economy, but the details were vague.

As I began walking around the empty library, the seed of an idea germinated: What if I placed the insects in the vacant spaces and had them tell their story as autobiographies? The library itself became a huge character in my story also, with the architecture uninterrupted by crowds of people. So I dried my tears and began exploring and photographing every room and all the Beaux-Arts details. The library expanded as a backdrop when I hit upon the idea to pretend the library was having a building-wide exhibition on insects, so every hall or room they entered would illuminate insect history.

I don’t mean to be a downer, but when I think of insects, I think of biblical-type plagues. Is it just me?
At a time when much of thoughts have turned to apocalypse, this is a decidedly uplifting view of New York specifically, and nature in general. What guided your viewpoint? Actually, thanks to COVID, an apocalypse was a guiding view for this project. The library felt distinctly like a post-apocalypse environment devoid of people, with pandemic fear abounding. So I formed the idea that the human race had disappeared and the insects were now the dominant creature. A beauty of the library is it represents many aspects of how humans demonstrated their best selves through literature, art, architecture, etc. The insects in my story get to admire all our human achievements revealed in the one place. The NYPL is an incredibly uplifting environment. It’s a repository that reminds us, for all our failings, we’re not complete idiots!

I became passionate about insects at the age of 4 when the periodical cicadas emerged by the millions. It just blew my mind to see so much action from nature, and for years it made me want to be an entomologist. That got heavy competition a few years later from Marvel Comics’ Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, but the marriage of these two lifelong passions has put me in a state of ecstasy that is coming out through the drawings. It’s almost been enough to make me forget about impending doom!

You’ve done political satire and commentary, reinterpreted the classics (Upton Sinclair and Franz Kafka come to mind), created intricate travel diaries and journals. What, if anything, would you brand this stage or period of your artistic life?
Good question, I’ve got to work on my branding. I’ve had such a varied career in subjects, forms and styles. Comics have always been a part of that mix, and some or a lot of social/political commentary, but stylistically I’ve been all over the place. I don’t try to force a style; I’m just trying to react to the story or material—and I get bored if I draw in one style too long. In fact, within the final graphic novel INterSECTS, I am changing stylistic approaches depending on what story is being told, and who is telling it. Each insect has their own voice and I want the art to represent that. I’m hoping in the end all the visual shifts will hold together, but ultimately readers will make that decision. 

How much time did you spend in the hallowed halls of the NYPL? I can’t imagine how immersive it must have been. Tell me.
The fellowship began in September of 2020, and thanks to the pandemic we were allowed to stay until August 2021. I tried to be there five days a week, and was the last person to leave at the end of the day. I took to just walking the halls and trying doors. At one point I stepped through an open door and found myself in the president’s unoccupied office. I noticed some nice paintings on the walls and realized they were N.C. Wyeth originals—huge original illustrations for both Treasure Island and Robin Hood! I photographed every room I could, so I have miles of reference for the spaces for my project. I made requests to see their various collections and got to peruse a hand-colored 1727 edition of Maria Sibylla Merian’s insect drawings from Suriname, a book of original drawings by Arthur Rackham fully illustrating Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that had been commissioned by the library in the early 1900s. Another highlight was seeing all of Charles Addams’ original cartoons—they have 150 in their archive. I had looked at them in books so many times it was like seeing old friends in person

One of the biggest mind-blowers was learning that the library extended under all of Bryant Park! I was given a tour through the old stacks with their old pneumatic tubes and a little train that carried books up to the Rose Reading Room. You could also see remnants of the walls of the enormous reservoir that stood where the NYPL is now from the 1800s. Needless to say it was hugely inspiring and impossible not to get joyfully lost in the scale of those magnificent rooms.

Was there, to your knowledge, any precedent for this approach to graphic narrative? In short, an “influence” or “inspiration”? I think of the 19th-century naturalists with a hint of sci-fi thrown in?
I almost can’t track the volumes of things that have inspired me in this project and so many others. Winsor McCay with his architectural renderings, Lionel Feinninger with his flights of fancy and remarkable page design. Nabokov’s own drawings of butterflies that I got to see in books of his original drawings in the Library’s Berg Collection. They also have John Tennial’s original pencil drawings for Alice in Wonderland that are shockingly tiny and irritatingly precise—I had to ask for a magnifying glass to see them clearly! Actually, Richard McGuire’s brilliant graphic novel Here, that he worked on at the library, was an additional inspiration. But just studying insects and evolutionary history and the entomologists who study them was the biggest source of new ideas for me. Happily, thanks to this project I was able to contact a number of entomologists, who were all very willing to talk about arthropods all day! They helped correct my errors and opened the door on new information. As part of the NYPL exhibition I’m having, we’ve done short interviews with a number of these entomologists. They can be heard on the NYPL INterSECTS website as well as directly in the exhibition space through QR codes.

You are one hell of prolific artist. So what is next?
Well, INterSECTS will be my focus for the next two years—W.W. Norton has signed on to publish it in 2024. I have been doing a weekly comic for Charlie Hebdo for the environmental column, and I’m co-art directing a site called Opp Art with Andrea Arroyo and Steve Brodner that posts political art five days a week on The Nation magazine website. And as much as time allows, creating/pitching political cartoons about the very insane state of our world. Though ultimately, I’d rather just think about bugs.