How Does One Succeed in America? The Life of Samuel Kaplan
From The Russian Community and Business
Written by Vitaliy Orlov
In 1983 when he still lived in the Ukraine, Samuel Kaplan painted
a picture called "The Time of Stillness in the USSR." The artist
expressed himself surrealistically in an unclear stream tensely
awaiting something. Water filled the narrow space, reminiscent of
a river, between the rocky shores, and in the background, one can
see a concentration camp security tower. Because the paintings
allegory was so obvious, an investigation was launched on the artist.
He was forced to hide the painting for a number of years, right
up until the fall of the USSR. The work was completed in the United
States in 1997.
Kaplan still loves Kiev, his Kiev: chestnuts blooming in the springtime,
the park of Vladimir Hill; the view from one side of the Dolnitsa
onto the turns of the Dnepa; lapping amongst the Kiev-Pechersk surroundingsbut
there were, and still are, plenty of lovely places in the city where
his youth passed
Samuel Kaplan received recognition: a few exhibitions in Moscow,
Kiev, and certain European countries, participation in many group-related
artist events from Lvov to Southern Saxalisk, and finally getting
the attention of museums.
It seems he was famous. But still he was continually told what
to draw, how, and why. One day he got sick of it.
In 1991, having gathered his best paintings, Samuel traveled from
Kiev to Los Angeles for an exhibition. Along with him came his wife
Sophia. Ukraine customs officials, checking his luggage before travel
to the United States and seeing the large quantity of drawings remarked,
" First time we see that someone brings paper into America."
They would never to return to the USSR. Having settled in Los Angeles,
Samuel Kaplan started painting again. As an artist he works in different
genres and differing techniques--- portraits, landscapes, drawings.
Kaplan sees the beauty and poetry of the city in its streets and
alleys, even in the attractiveness of what many call the "fragmented
city." An example of that can be a still alley which runs into a
brick wall part of a neighboring house. Some of the streets are
so old that they are laid out in granite (it seems that in the 20th
century no such thing was done!), and the three-story houses that
face these streets lean but do not collapse because of the husband
and wife who lived there peacefully, once thin and strong, now holding
one another up. The dark-gray color of the buildings, twilight,
and a lonely trolley car, moving in a weak yellow light emanating
from itself, as if going nowhere, like in a Fellini film, form a
Unfortunately Sophia, wife came to the United States too lateher
serious illness could not be treated in time
He loved his
wife immensely and often found, and still finds, ways to portray
her in his work.
There was not any sense in remaining in California alone. In these
hard times his sister came to the rescue and brought him to New
At that time Kaplan needed to be concerned with his status as an
immigrant. In 1989 at an exhibit in Moscow he made a plea to the
United Community of Soviet Jews. There the Moscow UCSJ received
one of his paintings as a gift of S. Kaplan, which is now located
as part of their permanent collection. These circumstances, leading
an actively participatory life, holding exhibitions, receiving recommendations
from museums in Russia and the Ukraine, along with Los Angeles museums,
all helped the artist to attain status as a permanent resident of
the United States, not as a refugee, but as a person with
In New York he was able to show his " Holocaust" in Brooklyns
Borough Park (1995), but more or less, serious attention to his
work in the "Capital of the World" was paid by the public and sources
of the mass media at an exhibition held at Battery Park in honor
of NYANAs, a Jewish organization aimed at helping Jewish immigrants,
After his move to New York, the artist firstly concentrated most
of his on Brooklyn. Not many artists are inspired to paint Brooklyn.
They even try to open up studios in Manhattanyou cant
bring a buyer to the outskirts of society, they reason! But here
Kaplan sees that which is hidden from an ambivalent first glance.
There is, for example, the painting, " Brooklyn at night," in which
the artist brought to life a little corner of a bus stop near his
house, himself inserted under the stops awning along the background
of a thunderous sky above, but instead of the usual advertisement
on the wall of the stop, there is a picture of his beloved wife.
Like any other artist Kaplan wants to show his work to an audience,
and if possible sell some of it, but for this you need exhibitions,
exhibitions, exhibitions, and money, money, money. The director
of the U.S. branch of the memorial fund in honor of Nathan Raxlin
Ulian Rappaport helped him put together his next exhibit. He knew
the artist from Kiev, 40 years ago, at which time Kaplan was working
on sketches for a portrait of the giving and prominent Kiev director.
At the exhibition, which occurred in September-October of 1999 in
one of the Jewish centers in New York, 42 of his works were displayed.
Besides the beloved city landscapes, the publics attention
at this exhibit was focused on a portrait of Mstislava Rostropovich.
" A sketch for this portrait," recounts Kaplan, "was made a long
time ago, when we once met in Palang. Then a painting was born by
the name of "Duet," in which Rastropovich is displayed sitting on
the roof with a viola, like an antithesis to the famous " Fiddler
on the Roof." When Andree Voznesenski saw this large canvas in a
Moscow exhibition, he said to me " You must show this to Mstislava
Leopoldovich, he will like it!" But Rostropovich only saw the portrait
when we met up in Los Angeles. I saw that he indeed did like his
portrait. Later I met up with him and his wife in New York. Galina
also liked the portrait, but she refused to accept it as a gift.
" If only it were smaller," said Galina, "at most like this." And
she proceeded to show the allowable size with arms spread wide open
in front of her.
Only after another year was Kaplan able to organize another exhibit.
This time he was at the center of Manhattan, in the Donnell Library,
in September 2000; ironically right across from the former location
of the Museum of Modern Art. The library exhibition was personal.
It included 36 of his paintings and charcoal pieces.
For a few years Kaplan worked on painting a Manhattan landscape,
in which the dominant theme was supposed to be a silhouette of the
Twin Towers. He made one sketch after another, with different perspectives,
different layouts. The view always came out grand, always very honorable,
monumental, but a bit bleak. This did not suit the artist because
it did not truly portray the multi-colored din of the streets at
the feet of the buildings. In Kaplans mind this was already
associated with the multi-colored capital of the world, and he looked
for a way to reflect that on the canvas. This time he decided for
comedic effect he could paint a "little silly group of musicians"
or toy astronauts flying low above the houses in their rockets,
who could become the humorous many- person descendants of serious
business life, falling on their brightly colored little parachutes
near the Towers.
Could Kaplan have predicted that on the morning of September 11th
he would have made the sketch for the anticipated painting, which
would be the last one modeled on reality? Could he have known that
this massive thing, which was supposed to last centuries, would
be as frail as a humans life, and that instead of the little
colored parachutes flying around downtown there would be chunks
of paper from the burnt windows. And there would be black smoke
that would not dissipate from our souls for a long long time.
Not at all humorous, but rather all too realistic descendants (of
our political system) and real airplanes destroyed the buildingsthe
symbols of our civilization
But life continues. Kaplans
attempts to continue to bring a little hope to New Yorkers. A
few years ago the American Association of Jews from the former USSR
sent a recommendation to the New York Jewish Museum signed by organization
president L. Stonova, to give S. Kaplan a personal exhibit. The
museum, saying that exhibitions there are planned years in advance,
forwarded the request to the Jewish Institute. Instead of an exhibition,
the Institute offered displaying a few paintings or wait two years
for a turn for a full exhibit. At the next bureaucratic turn, the
experts of art at the Institute claimed that Kaplans paintings,
"dont match the image of the Institute." Paradoxically, at
the same time in Kiev in honor of the artists anniversary,
without any personal initiative, his works were shown in two museums:
Kievs History Museum, and the Historical Museum.
The next step was to appeal to the association of Yeshiva Universitys
museum department, but even there S. Kaplan was told for the following
two years they are not accepting any works, there are too many artists,
and was suggested to ask gallery owners for help. " Yeah, for Jewish
themes no none has wanted to pay for a long time already," sadly
remarked one of Samuel Kaplans closest friends.
But Kaplan is not lowering his hands. He is now working intensely,
and working long hours, getting ready for a new exhibit scheduled
for the end of this August. This offer was made to him once more
by the Donnell Library.
Translated from Russian by Nina Kryuk
Back to The Citizen page!