The eco-feminist artist Mira Lehr, “godmother of Miami’s art scene” and co-founder of the Continuum women’s co-operative in that city, has died, aged 88.
Lehr moved to Miami from New York in 1960 and started to exhibit in the mid-1980s. She won new recognition in the 2000s, when her works were bought by leading US private collectors, museums, hospitals and the US State Department (for embassy collections). The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired three of her prints—Fluorescent (2019), and Ghost Forest I and Ghost Forest II (2021)—in September 2022.
Lehr also broke new artistic ground in her seventies, making large-scale installation pieces, and striking works on canvas on nature-based themes, inspired by the flora and shoreline of her Miami Beach home, using Japanese paper, inks, gunpowder, fire and fuses. The use of gunpowder was inspired by visiting a 2008 retrospective of the New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang at the Guggenheim. In these late pieces, Lehr used a blowtorch to scorch pieces of thick Japanese paper, which she then bathed in coloured inks, before, as a finishing touch, placing gunpowder and fuses on the canvas and lighting them to burn plant-like effects into the picture’s surface. “It’s dangerous and it’s exciting,” she said when interviewed for Mira Lehr. Arc of Nature. The complete monograph (2022). “It’s what my work is all about: beauty and its opposites, danger and destruction.”
In her 2020 exhibition High Water Mark, at the Mennello Museum of American Art, in Orlando, dedicated to the threat of climate change to oceans and coastline, Lehr presented her message using video, paintings and sculpture, including the large-scale installation Mangrove Labyrinth, built from rope and iron rods, and a room-sized exposition on the fate of coral. “There is a kind of chain reaction with coral,” she told the New York Times. “One goes and they all go. That could happen to our cities. We need to work together to save them.”
She was born Myra Tager, in Brooklyn, the daughter of Charles I. Tager, a successful office goods manufacturer, and Pauline (Pearl) Goodstein. Myra’s parents took the family to Miami Beach each winter, and moved there permanently in 1942. After graduating in art history from Vassar College, New York State—where she modified her first name to Mira and was taught by the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin—Mira married David E. Lehr, then a doctor in the Army Medical Corps, and did postgraduate work at the Boston Museum School while he trained in cardiology. When they moved to New York City the following year, Mira studied at the Museum of Modern Art and started to delve in the world of Abstract Expressionism. She studied with James Brooks, Ludwig Sander, and Robert Motherwell, and met Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Frankenthaler.
Mira and David Lehr moved to Miami with their young family in 1960. “It was a cultural desert”, Mira told The Art Newspaper in 2019. “But there has always been a core group of talented, committed artists, creating important work in spite of the many challenges. Little by little, the city improved, especially with the advent of Art Basel in Miami Beach [in 2002].”
A central pillar to that change was an artists’ group, latterly known as Continuum, which was co-founded by Lehr in 1961. It was designed to open up opportunities for women artists and to create an art community in Miami. “Women artists had a very hard time here,” Lehr told The Art Newspaper in 2019. “They were not recognised as artists—some even dismissed them as ‘dilettantes’. If a woman artist got married and had children, they were even more ignored.”
Lehr and her fellow collective members started by meeting in each other’s homes, and following the teachings of the influential Abstract Expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), who Lehr had met in New York. The wife-and-husband team of Nieves and James Billmyer, who had studied with Hofmann for more than 10 years, held annual winter workshops in Miami for Lehr and her circle. The first group exhibition was held in a rented space above a bar, and the first Continuum Gallery space opened in the 1970s.
Continuum ran for over 30 years and blossomed with visits from Lehr’s New York contacts, including the New York-based artist and dealer Betty Parsons. “Betty juried a national show for Continuum and stayed at my house, where we had many long discussions about art,” Lehr told The Art Newspaper. “She was the one who convinced me to take my painting off the easel and go beyond.”
Motherwell and Frankenthaler, who had married in 1958, came to Miami in the winter of 1962. Motherwell ran a course at the University of Miami and lectured to the Continuum group. “I liked him,” Lehr said. “We got along. He was fun to talk to. He critiqued my work and we talked about philosophy, existentialism.”
In 1969, the visionary architect Buckminster Fuller invited Lehr to New York to work on World Game, a six-week summer programme in which scientists, historians, architects, engineers and poets explored ways to make the world more sustainable, reduce poverty and increase productivity. It was a transformative experience. “Bucky got me thinking in positives,” Lehr says in Arc of Nature, “how to solve things, not just get stuck on how bad things are. I’m even more optimistic now. And I try to get that into my work, that the problems with the environment are not hopeless.”
Just over 60 years after Lehr moved permanently to Florida, and 20 years after the advent of Art Basel in Miami Beach, an exhibition of her new work at Rosenbaum Contemporary in Boca Raton (November 2022—January 2023) marked the publication of Mira Lehr. Arc of Nature. The complete monograph, an update to a monograph published for a 2015 retrospective at the same gallery. She also featured in two other exhibitions running concurrently with Art Basel in Miami Beach 2022: The Miami Creative Movement at the Center for Visual Communication in Miami’s Wynwood district (until 15 March) and Fragile Beauty: Environmental Art, at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in South Beach, which featured ten of her sculptures.
Asked about the future of her home city in 2019, she said: “We are at sea level, and water continues to rise. We must become more proactive and work together to protect the planet before it’s too late and before there’s no turning back. The time is now.”Myra (Mira) Bella Tager; born Brooklyn, New York City 1934; married David Lehr (died 1996; two daughters, two sons); died 24 January 2023