Being a painter by training, I use the loom to weave wool tapestries—paintings in fiber. The weavings rely on compositions of harmony, proportion, balance, and above all the visual music of color. Brilliant primary color itself is the subject of the artwork—color is king.
—Morris “Morrie” David Dorenfeld
Between 1980 and 2023, Morris David Dorenfeld (1937–2023) produced nearly 150 wool tapestries that reflect a wonderfully minimalist approach to composition and color. Each tapestry is a kind of balancing act.
The earliest work falls into the color field category, in particular the paintings of Mark Rothko whose works “floored” Dorenfeld when first viewed at a show in New York City. These “banded tapestries,” as the artist called them, consist of horizontal strata of varying sizes and hues that play off each other. The bands of deep color oscillate; some of the tapestries bring to mind Op Art or the stripe paintings of Kenneth Noland, Jack Bush, and others.
After buying out the stock of 20 percent Dacron 80 percent wool from the Knox Woolen Mill in Camden when it closed in 1988, Dorenfeld dove into weaving. From the beginning he believed in less is more, a philosophy brought about in part by the loom, which limits but simplifies. In a work of art, he said, “what one leaves out can be as important as what one puts in.”
Inspiration for the tapestries came from diverse sources, among them, “third phase blankets made by Navajo chiefs” (Red, White and Navy series), a Nina Simone song (Lilac Wine), particular hues (most notably rich reds and hunter orange), the coast of Maine, the circus, and Monarch butterflies. Dorenfeld also paid homage to his mother (the Rose Rose and Ravenswood series), his aunt Ruth Simon (Song of Ruth), and his partner Robert Francis Davis (Wheeler Bay for Bob).
Dorenfeld’s Voyage to Monhegan series from 1991–99 is arguably his most representational. The tapestries offer fields of pale gray-blue accented with small color squares. With guidance from the title, those rectangular swatches become lobster buoys spread out across the water creating a kind of Morse (or Morrie) maritime code.
In 2003, friends and patrons Len and Arlene D’Angelica commissioned Dorenfeld to create several narrow weavings, no wider than 31 inches. He called them “Boogie Woogie” on account of their resemblance to Mondrian’s last paintings, which channeled the energy of New York City in the early 1940s. As in those famous examples of Neo-Plasticism, the blocks of color in Dorenfeld’s tapestries produce a lively rhythm.
Among Dorenfeld’s most sustained series is one inspired by dominoes, those simple white tiles with their black spots and lines. Fellow abstract artist Frederick Lynch (1935-2016) had challenged him to create a work using only two colors. He tried but, in the end, couldn’t resist adding color to the design. The small squares of green, blue, and other hues don’t so much disrupt the balance as enhance the overall black-and-white dynamic.
Writing in the Maine Sunday Telegram in June 2008, Philip Isaacson noted how the Boogie Woogie and Domino series “release more energy than I would have thought likely to come from a vertical tapestry loom.” The new work was effervescent, wrote the critic, bobbing, dancing, and bouncing.
Dorenfeld started out as an Abstract Expressionist painter but took up weaving after finding a “beautiful old barn loom” in New Hampshire in 1980. He later wove on an upright Varpapuu Finlandia tapestry loom. This iconic medium became the center of his creative life.
The artist’s story is told in a splendid new monograph, The Tapestries of Morris David Dorenfeld: Paintings in Fiber (Custom Museum Publishing, 2023). Author Christopher Brewer Williamson provides the milestones of his life, from early family challenges in Depression-era Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York City.
In the 1960s, Dorenfeld spent summers in Provincetown where he met Robert Davis, who became his life-time partner. They lived in Fremont, New Hampshire, and vacationed in Maine. When Davis retired from General Tire and Rubber in 1978, the pair purchased an eight-acre island along with a property on the mainland in Spruce Head.
As luck would have it, the couple befriended artist Duane Paluska, who built two houses for them, one of which, named the “Landing House,” provided studio space and inspired several tapestries. Paluska would eventually show Dorenfeld’s work at his Brunswick gallery. As an artist and gallerist, he appreciated balance—and imbalance.
In the chapter titled “Tapestry Artist,” Williamson describes Dorenfeld’s technique. In the beginning he would compose the tapestries in miniature using felt-tipped markers. Later he employed colored construction paper to work out a design. The actual tapestry creation entailed beating the weft down with a hardwood fork and his fingers. The artist loved wool: “There is a softness to the yarn, more friendly than paint,” he once said.
The process included tacking the completed tapestry to a ceiling beam above his bed. “As Morrie studies the completed piece,” recounts Williamson, “he literally lives with it.” You might call that achieving art-life balance.
In his later series Dorenfeld improvised more, yet these pieces, like jazz compositions, contain their own sense of equipoise. Several tapestries in his Hunter Orange and Hunter Orange Series, 2012-2014, offer variations on vertical stripe arrangements. And he had finally found a use for a “Day-Glo color yarn” he’d had on hand for many years.
The Landing House and The Light at the End of the Tunnel series, Dorenfeld’s final works, are among his most inventive. Tapestry 141: The Landing House, 2019, reflects his powerful abstract sensibility. The colorful piece offers a range of geometric shapes that, for all their diversity of color and size, result in a calculated composition.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel pieces use scarlet, yellow, hunter orange, and a soft green to create simple bold compositions. Dorenfeld felt these tapestries meant “victory—over the pandemic, hunger, illness, injustice, hatred, and fear.”
The weaver was fully engaged in this series when he died on 13 February, 2023. “The creation of art is an act of faith—a celebration of life,” Dorenfeld once wrote. “We are here. We were here. We mattered. We matter!”
Quotes are taken from Christopher Brewer Williamson, The Tapestries of Morris David Dorenfeld: Paintings in Fiber and Dorenfeld’s obituary. You can see more of his work on the Caldbeck Gallery website. The gallery mounted Morris David Dorenfeld: Tapestry Master this past May.
Image at top: Arnie Dorenfeld, Morris David Dorenfeld, photograph, c. 1968.