Ritzi Jacobi, a European pioneer of contemporary textile and fiber art best known for her monumental tapestries and soft sculptures, died June 19 at her home in Düsseldorf, Germany. she was 80
The death was confirmed by her husband Heinz Possert, who gave no cause.
Ms. Jacobi’s vast textile creations were made from a variety of fiber-based materials ranging from cotton to goat hair. Although her work bore some resemblance to traditional tapestries, she pushed form into modernist, abstract realms.
She “has had a huge impact on the field of crafts and art,” said Jane Milosch, a former curator of contemporary crafts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Warren Seelig, professor emeritus at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who curated an exhibition of her work in 1994, said that although Ms. Jacobi has often been described as a “fiber artist,” her work was not easy to categorize.
“She was probably one of the very early really interdisciplinary artists who mixed all kinds of things together,” he said. “She was not a short-sighted textile weaver. She worked in a wide variety of ways, with paper and metal and fabric and fiber and goat hair—all those things. In the end it was her tapestry that was really provocative and innovative.”
Victoria Areclia Gavrila was born on August 12, 1941 in Bucharest, Romania to Nicolae and Marieta Gavrila. Her father worked on the railroad and her mother was a housewife. (She was nicknamed Ritzi, a shortened form of the Romanian diminutive for Victoria, Victoritza.)
Her early childhood was marked by the turmoil and hardships 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 became fascinated with ‘playing’ with her own clothes and, at an early age, began to take them apart, studying them inside out—in a way, her earliest foray into textile work.”
Although Ritzi grew up in the capital, Bucharest, she often visited relatives in the countryside, where she began experimenting with natural materials.
Encouraged by her parents to explore her burgeoning creativity, she excelled at drawing and painting in elementary and high school. She was accepted to study applied arts at the Institutul de Arte Plastice in Bucharest, now known as the National University of Arts in Bucharest.
Ritzi arrived there in 1961 and soon met Peter Jacobi, a sculpture student four years his senior. “She was in her freshman year and I was in my sixth, so we had a year together,” Mr Jacobi said in an interview. “That year we became a couple.”
The year after graduating, Mr. Jacobi took a job in the Romanian town of Craiova, where traditional ethnic Turkish weavers have been making rugs or kilims from goat hair since the Ottoman Empire, he said.
When the couple first began collaborating on artworks, one of their preferred materials was goat hair. They married in 1966.
Romania became a communist country in 1947, and Ms. Jacobi’s schooling coincided with the rise of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who became the country’s dictator in 1968, turning it into a totalitarian state.
“It wasn’t an easy time for artists,” said Volker Diehl, Ms. Jacobi’s German art dealer, in an interview. The Jacobis chose to work with fibers and textiles, at least in part, he said, because “art censors didn’t take this type of work seriously and so could work without censorship and without pressure.”
Her work fits into Romania’s long folk weaving tradition, which has produced richly colored tapestries and rugs. But while borrowing from this heritage, the Jacobis produced weaves that more closely resembled sculptural reliefs while retaining the natural hues of materials, including 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 her work as part of the “new tapestries” movement promoted by a group of artists working with traditional crafts, including Magdalena Abakanowicz of Poland, Jagoda Buić of Croatia, and Americans Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler and Sheila Hicks.
“Your work really fitted into a phenomenon of the time, in 1968, when all these art forms were flourishing,” Ms. Milosch said. “But hers was very specific as a tapestry, which was very monumental. Her pieces were so big that you would marvel and they would devour 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 this art fair, the couple fled to Germany. “Like many other artists and writers, they made that decision,” Ms. Milosch said, “but it was a difficult decision because it meant separating from their family.”
The Jacobis worked closely together for almost two decades. Mr. Diehl said that it was often assumed that Mr. Jacobi was the creative force in the couple, but in fact it was often the other way around.
Her first major solo exhibition in the US was at the Detroit Institute of Arts; It then traveled to several other locations, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Both the couple’s marriage and creative partnership ended in 1984, the same year they had an exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris and the Galerie Nationale d’Art Textile in Beauvais, France.
From then on, Ms. Jacobi worked as a solo artist.
“She blossomed,” said Ms. Milosch. She took “much of the work they created together in even more directions.”
In 1994, Ms. Jacobi was the focus of a solo exhibition entitled “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 she was “virtually blind” at the time.
“She wore Coke bottle lenses,” he said, “and she wasn’t very verbal, but she made these massive pieces, and it took a lot of concentration.”
He described Ms. Jacobi’s work process as “haptic, thinking through touch”.
“Her surfaces erupted almost naturally, they blistered, they seemed so natural, and that was because of the way she played with tension and pressure,” Professor Seelig said. “It really came from thinking about what their hands were doing as they touched the material.”
Her last gallery exhibition “Edge of Darkness” took place in 2019 at Galerie Diehl in Berlin.
In addition to Mr. Possert, Ms. Jacobi is survived by her brother Florian Gavrila.