... and Whacker of Flowerpots

I wanted to express my thanks for the March edition of Reed. I have to confess that I’m not a constant Reeder, but when I opened this last month’s issue, I saw my favorite photo of Xenia Kashevaroff Cage ’35. The next pleasure was John Sheehy’s article.

Xenia surely deserves far more than the two pages Reed gave her, and Sheehy’s fine note—remarkably comprehensive given its length—was almost certainly edited with some severity. (Yes!—Ed.) Still, it’s surprising how little is known about this fascinating woman who, sadly, never rebounded from the breakup with Cage. She likely had been a difficult partner in the last years of their marriage, and Cage never hid from Xenia his attraction to men. Cage, Kashevaroff, and a young Merce Cunningham had all known each other in Seattle, and Xenia surely found Cunningham every bit as attractive as did Cage.

From faraway England, Susan Gilbert is assembling a much-needed biography, and this hopefully will position Xenia’s life even more clearly within the NY art scene. She was a long-time friend of the notoriously solitary Joseph Cornell, and worked closely with Duchamp on his famous La-Boîte-en-Valise series. Sheehy identifies her father’s Aleutian Creole-Russian heritage, but space likely prohibited mention of her mother’s Tlingit identity (and her remarkable father’s fluency in the Tlingit language, as well as Russian and English). Father Andrew founded the Alaska State Museum, loaned Native artifacts to a Paris exhibition that fueled the surrealist movement, and vociferously opposed Canadian efforts to ban the potlatch and winter dance ceremonies which formed the social and economic basis of an extraordinarily rich coastal culture. His was nearly the only religious voice raised in opposition to Canadian cultural genocide. Potlatch raids and arrests “liberated” First Nations’ artifacts so that they could be sold to museums and private collectors. In recent years some have been repatriated.

Xenia was thought exotic by her admirers, and portrayed in that way in Weston’s photos (six of her in the buff Xenia kept throughout her life). Peggy Guggenheim included her in the 1943 Exhibition by 31 Women, an exhibition whose other contributors included Frida Kahlo, Djuna Barnes, Hedda Sterne, Dorothea Tanning, and Louise Nevelson. Xenia was an artist, if today a largely forgotten one. But Xenia was also a Native American. Just as African art was a key influence on cubism, so was North Coast Indian art on surrealism. As one surrealist effused following the Parisian exhibition of Father Kashevaroff’s artifacts, “We breathe in Alaska, we dream Tlingit, we make love in Haida totem poles.” And there she was in New York, a Tlingit from Alaska, the real thing.

By Larry Frisch ’67

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada