“The Godmother of Miami’s Art Scene,” Mira Lehr, has died at 88

Eco-feminist artist Mira Lehr, the “godmother of Miami’s art scene” and co-founder of the city’s women’s cooperative Continuum, has died at 88.

Lehr moved to Miami from New York in 1960 and began exhibiting in the mid-1980s. She gained renewed recognition in the 2000s when her works were purchased by leading American 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 Haunted Forest I and Haunted Forest II (2021)—in September 2022.

Lehr broke new artistic ground in her seventies, making large-scale installations and astonishing works on canvas of natural 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 a 2008 visit to a retrospective of New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang at the Guggenheim. In these late works, Lehr used a torch to burn pieces of thick Japanese paper, which he then doused in colored inks before, as a finishing touch, placing gunpowder and fuses on the canvas and igniting them to burn vegetal effects into the surface of the painting. “It’s dangerous and it’s exciting,” she said when interviewed for Mira Ler. Arc of Nature. The complete monograph (2022). “This is the purpose of my work: beauty and its opposites, danger and destruction.”

“It’s Dangerous and It’s Exciting”: Mira Lehr, To be and not to be (2022). Burnt and painted Japanese paper, acrylic paint on canvas ⓒ Mira Ler. Courtesy of News Travels Fast

In her 2020 exhibition High water markat the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, dedicated to the threat of climate change to oceans and coastlines, Lehr presented his message using video, paintings and sculpture, including the large-scale installation Mangrove Labyrinth, constructed of ropes and iron bars, and a room-sized exhibit on the fate of corals. “There’s kind of a chain reaction with the corals,” she told the New York Times. “One goes and they all go. This can happen to our cities. We must work together to save them.”

We must become more proactive and work together to protect the planet before it is too late and there is no going back. Now is the time

Mira Ler

She was born Mira Tager in Brooklyn, the daughter of Charles I. Tager, a successful office supplies manufacturer, and Pauline (Pearl) Goodstein. Myra’s parents took the family to Miami Beach every winter and moved there permanently in 1942. After graduating with a degree in art history from Vassar College, New York State, where she changed her first name to Myra and was tutored by the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, Myra married David E. Lehr, then a doctor in the Army Medical Corps, and did post-graduate work at the Boston Museum School while he trained in cardiology. When they moved to New York the following year, Mira studied at the Museum of Modern Art and began delving into the world of Abstract Expressionism. He studied with James Brooks, Ludwig Sander and Robert Motherwell and met Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Frankenthaler.

Behr: 1953 studio portrait by Hal Phyfe instagram.com/mtlstudios

Myra and David Lehr moved to Miami with their young family in 1960. “It was a cultural desert,” Myra said Art Gazette in 2019. “But there has always been a core group of talented, dedicated artists creating important work despite many challenges. Little by little, the city improved, especially with the advent of Art Basel in Miami Beach [in 2002].”

A central pillar of this change was the artists’ group later known as Continuum, which was co-founded by Lehr in 1961. It was designed to open opportunities for women artists and create an art community in Miami. “Women artists have had a very difficult time here,” Lehr said Art Gazette in 2019. “They were not recognized as artists—some even dismissed them as ‘dilettantes.’ If a female artist married and had children, they were even more ignored.”

It was Betty Parsons who convinced me to take my picture off the easel and go beyond

Mira Ler

Lehr and her fellow collective members began by meeting in their homes and following the teachings of the influential Abstract Expressionist painter and teacher Hans Hoffmann (1880-1966), whom Lehr met in New York. Husband-and-wife team Nieves and James Billmayer, who have studied with Hoffman for more than 10 years, hold annual winter workshops in Miami for Lehr and her circle. The first group exhibition was organized in a rented space above a bar, and the first Continuum Gallery space opened in the 1970s.

Continuum operated for more than 30 years and flourished with visits from Lehr’s contacts in New York, including New York-based artist and dealer Betty Parsons. “Betty juried a national show for Continuum and stayed at my house where we had very long discussions about art,” Lehr told Art Gazette. “She was the one who convinced me to take my painting off the easel and go beyond.”

Mira Lehr​​ 𝘍ραγραντ 𝘉LOOOM, August 2022​​ (Burnt and painted Japanese paper, acrylic ink, burnt wicks and burnt gunpowder on canvas. ⓒ Mira Ler. Courtesy of News Travels Fast

Motherwell and Frankenthaler, who married in 1958, came to Miami in the winter of 1962. Motherwell taught a course at the University of Miami and lectured to the Continuum group. “I loved it,” Lehr said. “We agreed. He was fun to talk to. He criticized my work and we talked about philosophy, existentialism.

In 1969, visionary architect Buckminster Fuller invited Lehr to New York to work on World Game, a six-week summer program in which scientists, historians, architects, engineers, and poets explored ways to make the world more sustainable, reduce poverty, and to increase productivity. It was a transformative experience. “Bucky made me think positively,” Lehr says Arc of Nature“how to solve things rather than just harping on about how bad things are. I’m even more optimistic now. And I try to bring that into my work, that environmental problems are not hopeless.”

Mira Lehr, Spring has sprung (2022). Burnt and painted Japanese paper, acrylic paint, acrylic ink, burnt wicks on canvas. ⓒ Mira Ler. Courtesy of News Travels Fast

A little more than 60 years after Lehr moved permanently to Florida and 20 years after Art Basel appeared in Miami Beach, an exhibition of her new work at Rosenbaum Contemporary in Boca Raton (November 2022-January 2023) marked the publication on Mira Ler. Arc of Nature. The complete monograph, an update of a monograph published for a retrospective in 2015 at the same gallery. She is also participating in two other exhibitions running concurrently with Art Basel in Miami Beach 2022: The creative movement in Miami at the Center for Visual Communication in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood (through March 15) and Fragile Beauty: Ecological Artat the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in South Beach, where ten of her sculptures were featured.

Asked about the future of her hometown in 2019, she said: “We are at sea level and the water continues to rise. We must become more proactive and work together to protect the planet before it is too late and there is no going back. Now is the time.”Myra (Mira) Bella Tager; born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934; married David Lehr (died 1996; two daughters, two sons); died January 24, 2023

‘Miami was a cultural wasteland in 1960’: 2019 interview with Mira Lehr

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