Mira Lehr, artist who explored nature's distress, dies at 88

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Mira Lehr, artist who explored nature's distress, dies at 88
“Mangroves Labyrinth,” a 2018 installation by Mira Lehr made of marine rope, steel resin, burned Japanese paper and latex paint, in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 1, 2020. Lehr, a versatile Florida artist who helped found an early cooperative gallery for women artists in Miami Beach and whose paintings, sculptures and installations often reflected her concerns about environmental degradation, died on Jan. 24, 2023, in Miami Beach. She was 88. (Alfonso Duran/The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Mira Lehr, a versatile Florida artist who helped found an early cooperative gallery for women artists in Miami Beach, Florida, and whose paintings, sculptures and installations often reflected her concerns about environmental degradation, died Jan. 24 in Miami Beach. She was 88.

She died in a hospital, her family said in an announcement. No cause was specified.

Lehr, who exhibited in Florida, New York and elsewhere for decades, was adventurous in her artistic explorations. Some of her work used Japanese rice paper, although she said she had never studied Japanese art in depth. She created mangrove labyrinths out of rope and steel that exhibition visitors could walk through.

Some of her more recent works involved fire — she would burn holes in canvases or ignite strings of gunpowder on them to create the appearance of vines and other effects.

“I’m lucky I still have eyelashes,” she told The Forward in 2020.

One of Lehr’s formative experiences as an artist came in 1969, when she was among 26 participants in an experiment by inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller called World Game, a logistics exercise often described as an “anti-war game” that involved parceling out the planet’s resources for the overall benefit of humanity.

“Mira Lehr was one of those players challenged to show how resources could be redistributed more equally and sustainably, a challenge to, in Fuller’s words, ‘make the world work’ for all,” Timothy Stott, an art history professor at the University of Dublin who has written a monograph about World Game, said by email.

Lehr took the challenge to heart.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” she told The Forward. “I had always liked working from nature in my art, but I had never thought about the earth in its totality like I started to do when I was with him.”

Her art in subsequent years, whether in two dimensions or three, frequently drew on the natural world, invoking foliage, birds, jellyfish, reefs, the ocean and more, often calling attention to the beauty of nature and the threats to it. Some of her art qualified as abstract or semiabstract, reflecting influences she had absorbed as a young adult in New York. But other pieces defied categorization.

There was, for instance, “Mixing Currents,” a piece created a decade ago and installed as part of “High Water Mark,” an exhibition of her work at the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida, in 2020. An immersive work that occupied an entire room at the museum, it incorporated a video projection of ocean waves lapping on a sandy shore, cutout shapes representing endangered corals and, dangling from the ceiling, dozens of lightbulbs like those used by laboratory scientists to accelerate coral growth.

“We have to think of the loss and destruction and that there is more of this to come,” Lehr told The New York Times in 2020. “But it’s not too late. We have the knowledge and ability to stop the destruction.”

Eleanor Flomenhaft, who frequently showed Lehr’s work at her Manhattan gallery, said that Lehr took her environmental art seriously, consulting with a biochemist and a marine biologist on some works, and that her enthusiasm was infectious.

“She did her homework,” Flomenhaft said in a phone interview. “You’d get attached to her as soon as you talked to her. Besides being an artist, this was an inspirational person.”

Jane Safer, widow of journalist Morley Safer, said she and her husband first became friends with Lehr and her husband, Dr. David Lehr, a cardiologist, decades ago when Morley Safer interviewed Lehr on CBS for a “60 Minutes” segment. Jane Safer said Lehr threw herself into her art after David Lehr’s death in 1996.

“At a stage when most people are kind of winding down creatively, she had this incredible burst of creative energy,” Jane Safer said by phone. “She was innovating and experimenting into her 80s.”

Myra Belle Tager was born Sept. 22, 1934, in Brooklyn. Her parents called her Mirabel, which she later shortened to Mira. Her father, Charles, designed and manufactured staplers and other office items. Her mother, Pearl (Goodstein) Tager, had once been a hat model.

Mira spent most of her childhood in Chicago and Miami Beach, then attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She graduated in 1956 with a degree in art history and married Lehr that same year.

She spent the late 1950s in New York.

“It was the time of the abstract expressionists’ heyday,” she recalled in a 2020 video interview, and she met some of those artists. Those connections proved valuable after she and her husband moved to Miami Beach in 1960 and she became involved with a group of other women who started an artists cooperative called Continuum.

Miami Beach wasn’t yet the art center it is today, but Lehr’s New York connections and Florida’s weather lured some of those New York artists south to give workshops at Continuum in the winter.

The co-op opened its initial gallery in 1966 and kept going in various locations into the 1990s. It provided studio space and mounted exhibitions by its members and other women artists

“When we first started this gallery, they thought we were crazy, off the wall,” Lehr told The Miami Herald in 1987. “They thought, ‘Why would women need their own gallery?’”

The answer was twofold: One, there wasn’t much of an art scene in Miami Beach at the time, and two, what art scene did exist was something of a boys club.

“The art establishment was really male-oriented,” she told the Herald. “They ran the galleries. They controlled the art market.”

And then there was the location: Florida. Which was not New York.

“If you were a woman and you lived outside of New York City, you were considered a dilettante,” Lehr told the Vassar website in 2020. “So we put on our own shows and were very happy doing the work.”

Lehr’s representatives said her family was continuing preparations for the opening of a solo exhibition at the C. Parker Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut, this month.

Lehr is survived by two daughters, Alison Fryd and Elizabeth Matthews; two sons, John and Paul Lehr; and seven grandchildren.

Lehr would often make her gunpowder works in her backyard, which, she said, must have left her neighbors wondering. It was a technique she first saw used by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang and adapted into her own works. It enabled her to achieve eye-catching effects, but, she said in the video interview, it represented a dichotomy as well.

“It also shows the other side of creation,” she said, “which is destruction.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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