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How Does One Succeed in America? The Life of Samuel Kaplan
From The Russian Community and Business
July16-22, 2002

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 painting’s 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 surroundings–but 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 worrisome mood.

Unfortunately Sophia, wife came to the United States too late–her 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 York.

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 extraordinary abilities.’

In New York he was able to show his " Holocaust" in Brooklyn’s 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 NYANA’s, a Jewish organization aimed at helping Jewish immigrants, 25th anniversary.

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 Manhattan–you can’t 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 stop’s 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 public’s 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 Kaplan’s 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 human’s 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 buildings–the symbols of our civilization… But life continues. Kaplan’s 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 Kaplan’s paintings, "don’t match the image of the Institute." Paradoxically, at the same time in Kiev in honor of the artist’s anniversary, without any personal initiative, his works were shown in two museums: Kiev’s History Museum, and the Historical Museum.

The next step was to appeal to the association of Yeshiva University’s 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 Kaplan’s 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

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