Thursday, 29 August 2013

Xenia Cage; the 31 Women number 20, her birthday is 28 August

Xenia Cage - 28 August 1913 Juneau, Alaska – d .1995 New York.

Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff Cage is not an forgotten artist, she is an unknown artist. She had a brief window of recognition from 1943 to 1945, though she was highly creative throughout her lifetime; she was a painter, sculptor, musician, designer, book binder, craft worker and conservator. She is one of those talented and versatile women who are routinely ignored, their careers over-shadowed by famous male partners. In Xenia’s case this was composer and writer John Cage, who was as revolutionary in the field of modern music as Marcel Duchamp had been in modern art. Xenia’s contribution in both fields has vanished during the creation of the John Cage mythology.

Xenia Cage, photograph
courtesy of Jennifer Page
So complete was this disappearance, even during Xenia’s lifetime, that Whitney Chadwick, academic champion of women in modern art in her 1985 book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement mentioned John Cage but seemed unaware of Xenia. Chadwick was not alone. Cage scholars continue to treat the marriage as insignificant, yet Xenia collaborated with Cage for more than ten years, even after their divorce and he dedicated several pieces of music to her.

John and Xenia were both active participants in a radical cultural scene in the USA during the 1930’s and 1940’s, but Xenia’s participation in the world of modern music is still largely un-researched and the only significant acknowledgement of her contribution to modern art came in 2005.  

The full extent of Xenia Kashevaroff Cage’s career as a visual artist remains obscure, her own art works have proved very hard to trace. She is in New York's  Metropolitan Museum of Art, but only as the subject in photographs by Edward Weston.  One small painting by Xenia is in a public collection in her home state Alaska, any other works which survive are either in private hands or possibly attributed to someone else as, like many among the 31 Women, Xenia often collaborated with others. In her case these included artists Wolfgang Paalen, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, dancers and choreographers Jean Erdman and Merce Cunningham, as well as John Cage and other musicians.

Xenia Cage was described by Penelope Rosemont as being on the ‘cutting edge of surrealism in sculpture’. There is no record of what became of the abstract mobile that Xenia showed at the Exhibition of 31 Women, it was an elegant, fragile thing made from balsa wood and rice paper strung on slender wires. The first recorded public view of one of her mobiles was on 14 May 1941, when the Cage Percussion Players performed in San Francisco. Xenia decorated the performance space with a large balsa wood and rice paper mobile beneath which the musicians, including Xenia herself, performed - the movement and shadows cast by the mobile were an intrinsic part of the show. It's probable that Xenia was creating mobiles before this time, but none are known to have survived, even photographs are scarce.

Xenia constructed and exhibited a number of mobiles after the Exhibition of 31 Women in 1943, most notably at the Julien Levy Gallery, where she had the only solo exhibition of her work, in early 1944. She achieved some small celebrity, an article in Galmor Magazine depicted her home and she showed two more mobiles and a chess table at the December 1944 Imagery of Chess exhibition, also at Levy’s gallery. The chess table, a geometric structure of dowels and angles, survives but is too fragile to exhibit. A copy was created by Larry List for the “Imagery of Chess Revisited exhibition at the Isamu Noguchi Museum, New York, in 2005, which also showed photographs of Xenia’s original mobiles in situ.

Xenia explored many fields of the arts, but she was not independently wealthy so had to support herself, sometimes as a music copyist and by working in museums and galleries. As well as working as a pianist and percussionist, she acted in films by director Maya Deren and designed costumes for dancers Merce Cunningham and Jean Erdman. Also a highly talented craft worker, one of Xenia’s specialities was bookbinding. Her skills assisted Marcel Duchamp with his Boîtes en Valise, but also came in useful shortly after Xenia left John Cage, when she found herself obliged to make hundreds of slip cases for books, tedious but relatively well paid work.

In the 1940's Xenia Cage’s mobiles were shown alongside artists who are now far better known including Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Marcel Duchamp, Kay Sage, Man Ray, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell and even Andre Breton. Xenia was also a painter, a conventional watercolour sketch of a small church at Fort Ross, California belonged to her father and is now in the archives of the Juneau library in Alaska. She created surrealist works, including an assisted readymade in the form of a post card of the art deco Chrysler skyscraper in New York, Xenia painted a huge arched hole penetrating the building with clouds flowing through

Xenia Kashevaroff was born in Juneau, Alaska, of mixed Russian and Alutiiq descent. She was the youngest of six, her father was Andrew Kashevaroff, a Russian orthodox priest, language teacher, violinist and also the first full-time curator of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.  When Xenia was very young she contracted tuberculosis which badly affected one knee joint, resulting in a permanently stiff knee, she spent time at a sanatorium for tubercular children in Juneau, which was deeply traumatic. During the 1920's the family migrated to Carmel in California, Xenia attended Monterey High School and went to live with sister Natalya in Los Angeles. Xenia subsequently spent two years as an art student at Reed College, Portland, returning to California between semesters. She became friends with Gretchen Schoeninger, a young artist who was part of the local scene in Carmel. Another close friend in this period was pioneering ecologist Ed Ricketts, who threw the best parties. Ricketts remained a lifelong friend and through him Xenia met Joseph Campbell and John Steinbeck.

In 1933 Xenia had the first known exhibition of her work in San Francisco, with Henrietta Shore who was her teacher.  The same year she met musician and composer John Cage, when she went into an arts and crafts store in Los Angeles. The store was run by John’s mother, who had opened it to give depression-struck local artists and craft workers an outlet for their work, John helped out. He claimed it was love at first sight on his part, it took him a year to persuade Xenia to marry him. They were married in Tuma, Arizona on 7th June 1935.

After their marriage, Xenia and John moved around; 1937 found them in Santa Monica, living with Hazel Dreis, who taught Xenia the art of bookbinding, a delicate and precise craft whose techniques would be invaluable. They then moved to Seattle, where Xenia taught bookbinding and John taught music, they also founded the Cage Percussion Players, which toured libraries and University campuses.  Next was Chicago, where they were neighbours with friend Gretchen Schoeninger and her husband Alexander Corazzo, before they arrived in New York in June 1942.

Although their personal relationship was not easy, Xenia and John Cage had a very creative partnership. They worked on a number of experimental musical pieces, though these are always credited to John as composer. Already a pianist, Xenia became a skilled percussion player and many years later could still drum with passion and precision. Their music was highly esoteric and met with mixed success. A Seattle newspaper photograph from this period, captioned “Let there be music from pots and pans,” shows Xenia playing maracas, sitting at one side of the ensemble.

They were invited to stay with Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst on their arrival in New York. This co-habitation only lasted a few weeks, but despite a misunderstanding over a premiere of one of Cage's works, which made an enraged Peggy throw them out, Xenia remained friends with Peggy and Ernst. She was invited to show her work at the 1943 Exhibition of 31 Women and two years later The Women, at Art of This Century.

In the mean time they stayed temporarily with dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman and writer Joseph Campbell. Then Merce Cunningham, who they had both known in Seattle, arrived in New York. In spite of her increasing involvement in the visual arts, Xenia was still a musician. She continued to perform with Cage as pianist and percussionist, but they no longer liver together. Xenia spent months in analysis after separating from John Cage, an experience she found immensely painful, but she refused to divorce him until the analysis was over. They were divorced in November 1946, although Xenia’s last performance with Cage was recorded, in May 1958, when a large number of performers took part in the John Cage 25 Year Retrospective Concert, in New York.

Xenia's craft-work, which included wall hangings, textiles, tables and Japanese style paper screens, made a significant contribution to her income after her divorce. From 1947, Xenia worked for Peggy Guggenheim, with Marcel Duchamp on his project, La Boîte en Valise. These were produced between 1941-1966 in seven different series, with each box containing miniature replicas of 69 works by Duchamp. Some of these miniatures had been manufactured in France and had to be smuggled out to the USA in 1941. They were assembled into beautiful art objects, three hundred almost identical portable galleries which unfold to display the 69 miniature works. Xenia took over the complicated task around 1947, completing at least sixty Boîtes. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp’s biographer, noted the dedication and skilled craftsmanship Xenia displayed while helping to create these works. They were fitted into simple grey cardboard boxes, but in 1952 the last set of fifteen that she assembled were in leather-bound cases.

 After her divorce from John Cage, Xenia largely vanished from view, only getting occasional mentions as Cage’s former wife, or the assembler of Duchamp’s Boîtes. She actually retreated for a period to stay with her favourite sister Natalya in Pacific Grove, California. John Lovejoy, Natalya's son, recalls several more of Xenia’s abstract mobiles, this time made from wire and mesh, which hung in his California home during the late 1940’s. On a more intimate scale, family and friends remember receiving her unique hand-made greetings cards and other small gifts such as preserve labels. Today, very few of her creations are known to still exist.

Xenia eventually returned to New York City, where she worked as a freelance artist and designer, creating three-dimensional items including her abstract mobiles, coffee tables and paper and wood screens, all in a simple, modernist style. She also created wallpaper designs and continued to paint, but her work ceased to be exhibited during her lifetime. Soon Xenia was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Matisse Gallery and then the Whitney Museum. From 1968 she was employed at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum as a cataloguer and conservator.  

Xenia lived in New York with journalist Uri Danyluk until 1995; when she died aged 82, her funeral was paid for by her friend Jean Erdman. The following year, Danyluk took her ashes to Alaska to be buried near her parents in the cemetery in Juneau.

Xenia Cage has been acknowledged as an artist in three exhibitions since her death:-
Siobhan Conaty's 1997 exhibition, Art of This Century: The Women, Pollock-Krasner House, 
Larry List's 2005 October – March 2006 The Imagery of Chess Revisited The Isamu Noguchi Museum,  
2005-06 Accommodations of Desire: Surrealist Works on Paper from the Julien Levy Collection.

These exhibitions and the few works I have mentioned may today be the only visual reminders of the highly individual talents of Xenia Kashevaroff Cage, a versatile artist who, unfortunately for her, was once married to a legend. However it does seem likely that there is more of her work out there, somewhere, unacknowledged and awaiting discovery.

Any further information about Xenia Cage, or comments and corrections are very welcome.
 My thanks to:-
John Lovejoy
Jennifer Page
Larry List

Other sources include:-
Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement  1985
Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology University of  Texas 1998 
Paul Cummings, Oral history interview with John Cage  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution - May 2, 1974 
Larry List  The Imagery of Chess Revisited , Isamu Noguchi Foundation/George Brazillier, New York 2005
Siobhan Conaty - 1997 Art of This Century: The Women, Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center
Kenneth Silverman - Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage


You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.



  1. Fascinating. Thanks & heaps for researching & sharing this with us.

  2. Thanks Jim, Xenia had an interesting life and has been fascinating to research, if very tricky. Do you have a particular interest?

  3. This is the second time I have read an article on my cousin who I never knew. The first was sent to me from another cousin who gave me a copy. This was an interesting article and as with both I have never seen any of her work which I wish were published with one of the articles. I am the Great Granddaughter of her Dad's brother who was also a Priest in the Russian Orthodox Church but in Kodiak. Thank you for your article. Rebishka

    1. Hi Rebishka, I'm delighted to hear from another cousin of the fascinating Xenia! Thanks for your kind comments on my article. Unfortunately I can't publish photographs of Xenia's work as they are not mine to publish, I know many people aren't at all scrupulous about this, but I do try to be. However I could send copies to you, if you gave me your email address. Sue

  4. thanx for bringing up the story of this creative lady.

  5. You're welcome Verica. Researching Xenia has been fascinating and inspired me to write not only her biography but also a play about her and her five sisters.

    1. Hi Sue

      To echo others' many thanks for this extraordinary sleuthing, the finding of much of it being quite an astonishing accomplishment. By "biography" do you mean what you've so marvellously written above, or is there more?


    2. hi Larry, thanks for the compliment, I'm flattered! I've enjoyed researching the elusive Xenia and I am a bit obsessive in my research habits which may help. Yes there's more - I have to save something for the book!

  6. Hi, just been reading the Roaring Silence biography of John Cage and couldn't believe how disinterested the author is in Xenia and the marriage as a whole, so glad to find this page. Many thanks.
    malcolm green

  7. Thanks Malcolm. It's been difficult researching Xenia's marriage, even her remaining family know little about it, most knew her in her later years.
    As for John Cage studies, many seem not to want to know that the marriage ever existed. Xenia appears to be an embarrassment for the John Cage mythologisers.

  8. Hi Sue,

    I came across your article while trying to find out more about the Bolshanin part of my family - I am Sasha's granddaughter, so Xenia was my great-aunt. I don't recall ever meeting her, but the John Steinbeck/Ricketts connection was familiar because grandma and grandpa (Jack Calvin) also hung out with them and grandpa co-authored "Between Pacific Tides" with Rickets. Needless to say, I'll be checking out more of your blog and will line up to buy your book!

  9. For some reason the reply button isn't working for me. I want to add to my above comment that I'd like to get a copy of your play about Xenia and her sisters if possible?

    1. Hi Tanya,
      sorry for the delay. I will try to email you.