Ritzi Jacobi, Maker of Mind-Bending Textile Art, Dies at 80

Ritzi Jacobi, a European pioneer of contemporary textile and fiber art who was best known for her monumental wall hangings and soft sculptures, died on June 19 at her home in Düsseldorf, Germany. She was 80.

The death was confirmed by her husband, Heinz Possert, who did not specify a cause.

Ms. Jacobi’s enormous textile creations were made of a variety of fiber-based materials that ranged from cotton to goat hair. Although her work bore some resemblance to traditional tapestry, it pushed the form into modernist, abstract realms.

She “made a huge impact on the field of crafts and art,” said Jane Milosch, a former curator of contemporary craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Warren Seelig, professor emeritus at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who curated a 1994 exhibition of her work, said that although Ms. Jacobi was frequently described as a “fiber artist,” her work wasn’t easily categorized.

“She was probably one of the very early truly interdisciplinary artists, mixing all kinds of things,” he said. “She was not a myopic textile weaver. She was working broadly, with paper and metal and cloth and fiber and goat hair — all that kind of stuff. In the end, it was her tapestry that was really provocative and innovative.”

Victoria Areclia Gavrila was born on Aug. 12, 1941, in Bucharest, Romania, to Nicolae and Marieta Gavrila. Her father worked for the railroad, and her mother was a homemaker. (She was nicknamed Ritzi, a shortened form of the Romanian diminutive for Victoria, Victoritza.)

Her early childhood was marked by the turmoil and privations of World War II, said Ms. Milosch, who conducted a five-hour interview with Ms. Jacobi for a Smithsonian oral history project in 2010.

“She didn’t have any traditional toys growing up, not even a teddy bear,” Ms. Milosch wrote in an email. Instead, “she was intrigued with ‘playing’ with her own clothes, and started to take them apart early on, study them inside out — so in some sense, her earliest foray into textile work.”

Although Ritzi grew up in Bucharest, the capital, she often visited relatives in the countryside, where she started to experiment with natural materials.

Encouraged by her parents to explore her nascent creativity, she excelled in drawing and painting while in elementary and high school. She was accepted at the Institutul de Arte Plastice in Bucharest, now known as the National University of Arts in Bucharestto study applied arts.

Ritzi arrived there in 1961, and she soon met Peter Jacobi, a sculpture student four years her senior. “She was in her first year, and I was in my sixth, so we had one year together,” Mr. Jacobi said in an interview. “We became a couple that year.”

In the year after he graduated, Mr. Jacobi took a job in the Romanian city of Craiova, where traditional ethnic Turk weavers had been making rugs, or kilims, from goat hair since the Ottoman Empire, he said.

When the couple began to collaborate on artworks, goat hair was one of their chosen materials. They married in 1966.

Romania became a Communist country in 1947, and Ms. Jacobi’s school years coincided with the rise of Nicolae Ceaușescuwho would become the nation’s dictator in 1968, turning it into a totalitarian state.

“It was not an easy time for artists,” Ms. Jacobi’s German art dealer, Volker Diehl, said in an interview. The Jacobis chose to work in fiber and textiles, at least in part, he said, because “art censors didn’t take this kind of work seriously, and so they could work without any censorship and without any pressure.”

Their work fit in Romania’s long folk tradition of weaving, which has produced lushly colorful tapestries and carpets. But while they borrowed from this heritage, the Jacobis made weavings that were more like sculptural reliefs, retaining the natural hues of the materials, which included cotton, untreated cardboard, sandpaper, sisal, coconut fiber and graphite.

American Craft magazine credited the Jacobis with introducing goat hair into contemporary textile art. And art historians recognize their work as part of the “new tapestry” movement, furthered by a group of artists working with traditional crafts, among them Magdalena Abakanowicz of Poland, Jagoda Buić of Croatia and the Americans Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler and Sheila Hicks.

“Their work really fit into a phenomenon of that moment in 1968, when all these forms of art were burgeoning,” Ms. Milosch said. “But theirs was very specific as tapestry that was very monumental. Their pieces were so large that they would command wonder, and they would engulf you, because they were also very organically architectural.”

In 1969, the Jacobis exhibited at the International Tapestry Biennial in Lausanne, Switzerland. A year later they were invited to represent Romania at the Venice Biennale.

After receiving a special visa to leave Romania to attend that art fair, the couple defected to Germany. “Like a lot of other artists and writers, they made that choice,” said Ms. Milosch, “but it was a difficult choice because it meant cutting yourself off from your family.”

The Jacobis worked in close collaboration for close to two decades. Mr. Diehl said that people frequently pretend that Mr. Jacobi was the creative force in the couple, but in fact it was often the other way around.

Their first major solo exhibition in the United States was held at the Detroit Institute of Arts; it was later traveled to several other venues, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Both the marriage and the couple’s creative partnership came to an end in 1984, the same year they had an exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris and at the Galerie Nationale D’Art Textile in the French city of Beauvais.

Ms. Jacobi worked from then on as a solo artist.

“She was flourishing,” Ms. Milosch said. She was “pushing a lot of the work they created together in even further directions.”

In 1994, Ms. Jacobi was the focus of a solo show“The Impulse to Abstract: Recent Work by Ritzi Jacobi,” organized by the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Professor Seelig, who curated the exhibition, recalled that at that time, “she was practically blind.”

“She wore coke-bottle lenses,” he said, “and she wasn’t very verbal, but she was making these massive pieces, and it took a great deal of concentration.”

He described Mrs. Jacobi’s working process as “haptic, thinking through touch.”

“Her surfaces almost erupted naturally, they are blistered, they seemed so natural, and it was because of the way that she played with tension and compression,” Professor Seelig said. “It really came out of the thinking her hands were doing as they were touching the material.”

Her final gallery exhibition, “Edge of Darkness,” took place at the Diehl gallery in Berlin in 2019.

In addition to Mr. Possert, Ms. Jacobi is survived by her brother, Dr. Florian Gabriel, a physician.

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