Kent Fine Art
Mar 1, 2018 9:23PM


Paul Laffoley (1935-2015) was a dreamer. That is what he was called by his mentor, the visionary architect Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965), who he met while in his mid-twenties and under whom he apprenticed for about a year in New York. Laffoley was never able to determine if Kiesler’s remark was a compliment or an insult, but it is perhaps no coincidence that his career as an artist began with a dream. In July of 1961, after having been subjected to multiplefive sessions of electric-shock therapy for a condition of catatonia (a state of lethargy caused by a mental disorder), he dreamt that he attended an art exhibition containing sculptures that were so precise in their expression that he was overwhelmed. “All the forms I’ve been thinking about or could think about for years and years to come,” he later recalled, “are expressed in this work.” He would spend the next fifty years creating works of art that attempted to approach the clarity of vision expressed in those sculptures, paintings that are so complex, interdisciplinary transdisciplinary, theoretical and all-encompassing in their message that they are best described—like the architecture of Frederick Kiesler—as visionary.

“Visionary art is the art of making symbols,” wrote Laffoley in 1970, “which evoke the transcendental existence and character of the cosmic forces of the universe.” He believed that the works themselves possessed an ability to manifest these forces, which he felt were eternal and shared by artists in different periods of history.  “The forms of visionary art are not time or ego-oriented in terms of style,” he wrote, but instead, to paraphrase the writings of Carl Jung, are a product of “mankind’s collective unconscious.” Today, the term visionary is used to describe artists who are often untrained, yet naïvely attempt to express grand ideas that they understand only superficially. In this sense, Laffoley is anything but a visionary, for there is no question that he fully comprehends the complex nature of the conceptual constructs he employs, which are drawn from his deep reading and understanding of science, mathematics, higher dimensions, time travel, alchemy, astrology, psychology, mysticism, literature, philosophy, religion, the occult, etc.  “The visionary genre attempts to link the memory of the past,” he wrote, “with the anticipation of the future by means of a transdisciplinary process in the present.”  His is a vision that attempts to encapsulate encapsulate complex ideas extrapolated from these disciplines thoughts extracted from these disciplines—either in part of in combination with others—into a single painted image.

Upon graduation from high school, Laffoley studied at Brown University, where he took courses lasses iin the classics, philosophy, and art history. During the course of his studies, he became increasingly interested in He was drawn to architecture, because it consisted of diagrams that rendered objects in space with accuracy and precision, so upon graduation, he enrolled in the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It was while studying there that he took a class with the Italian painter and sculpture Mirko Basaldella, who taught at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Arts. “What he asked me to do,” Laffoley later recalled, “was to go away and do 300 drawings in ink about 20 x 30 inches, and not to come back until I finished them all.” A handful of these drawings were discovered in Laffoley’s studio after his death, and are shown in this exhibition for the first time. These remarkable black-and-white images are composed of organic shapes, repeated patterns that echo forms in nature; they are not precise visual analogues, but rather images that seem to have been composed of the microscopic and, at the same time, visions of the cosmos (the two extremes in the natural world and universe that physicists have attempted to unite in a common formula for generations). Laffoley’s study at Harvard came to an abrupt end, for he was dismissed from the program for what he later described as was for reasons of “conceptual deviance.”

Many of Laffoley’s mature paintings consist of a large circle inscribed within the square format of a stretched canvas, often accompanied by smaller circular forms surrounding it, evoking comparisons to Hindu and Buddhist mandalas and cosmic diagrams. Sources such as these are were a logical extension of his way of thinking, for his father (a banker by profession) was interested in Eastern religions and philosophy, as well as the practice of a spiritual life, to the extent that he performed as a trance medium at a theatre in Boston. Compelling though these comparisons might be, there is yet another source for Laffoley’s imagery, far more mundane in nature but strikingly similar in format: the so-called Indian Head Test Pattern projected on black-and-white television screens when not transmitting programs in the early years of television. Laffoley recalls having stared at that pattern for hours in a fire station that Andy Warhol’s had purchased studio in New York. He met Warhol by simply looking up his number in a phone book and cold-calling him. Warhol invited him to an opening and, when he discovered that the young man had no place to stay, told him that he could sleep reside in the fire station his studio for a few weeksnights, just so long as he agreed to watch television from stare at the TV test pattern2:00 AM to 6:00 AM, when only this test pattern appeared on the screen (apparently, Warhol wanted to see if watching television over prolonged periods it would make an appropriate subject for a film). It was in this period that Laffoley met also worked with Frederick Kiesler, who hired him to prepare pieces for an upcoming Guggenheim presentation and exhibition. It was through Kiesler’s recommendation that he secured a job working for the architectural firm of Emery Roth & Sons, who, with the architect Minori Yamasaki, were then in the process of designing the World Trade Center. At one meeting, Laffoley came up with the idea of joining the two towers together by a series of bridges, a suggestion that was considered so impertinent that it resulted in his immediate dismissal.

While living in New York, Laffoley never abandoned his studio in the basement of his family home in Belmont, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston), where he would travel to paint on weekends. It was here that he painted a remarkably prescient picture called The City Can Change Your Life (1962), where, in a triptych-like format to be read from right to left, a single-engine plane strikes an island metropolis at precisely 9:03 AM, forecasting the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City 39-years later (the second plane impacted the south tower at exactly 9:03 AM). Laffoley himself was baffled by the accuracy of his prediction; if pressed to come up with an explanation, he might very well have told us that it came to him in a dream. In 1995, for example, he was shown images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of gas clusters thousands of light years away from earth, an image that astonished him, not because they had never been seen before, but because he claims to have already seen them in a lucid dream. “This was personal proof to me that dreams can yield advancement in knowledge and process information prior to the existence of human life,” causing him to conclude: “That we are born of stardust or have stardust memories has been more fact than poetic metaphor.”

It is in dreams such as these, and in his conscious attempt to visualize what will occur in the future that Laffoley earns his reputation of being a true visionary. Working for the next 38 47 years—first in a cramped utility room of an office building at 36 Bloomfield Street in Boston that he occupied from 1968 to 2004, and then for the next 11 years (until his death in 2015) in a 2000-square-foot studio at 15 Channel Center Street in South Boston—he would explore in his paintings the structures of various complex operating systems, psychotronic devices, lucid dreams, meta-energy, time travel, and utopian theories. Each painting was preceded by years of investigation in his subject, sometimes preparing detailed handwritten notes, all in an attempt to ascertain relationships that could be structured into a single image, creating a work of art that contained what he called a “structured singularity.” The format of these paintings were always diagrammatic, an approach that can be traced to his training as an architect, but which he felt best suited the singularity of his vision. “I feel that the visual diagram by its nature is capable of expressing ideas with an impact equal to the thought diagram formed in the mind,” he wrote in a statement prepared for an exhibition in the mid-1960s. “The advantage of the diagram especially in our time of accelerated circumstantial change, is the potential to deal with and communicate the totality of human experience within the limits of the visual medium.”

In 1971, Laffoley founded The Boston Visionary Cell, an organization that consisted of eight artists and writers of which he was unquestionably the guiding force. “We believe that the evocation of the mystical experience by means of symbols, which has functioned as part of the intentioning [sic] process throughout the course of human history,” they wrote in their founding charter, “is the intended direction of evolution that becomes most expressive through visual art during those periods in history that are characterized by rapid change.” Whereas the artists who formed part of the original group eventually went their own separate ways, for Laffoley the organization never ended (he would keep it incorporated as a legal entity until his death). For the remaining years of his life, he remained committed to its principles, compiled notes from his readings and continued to paint pictures in the confines of his studio, generating the concrete results of his thinking in a space that could be regarded as his own private visionary cell.

Francis M. Naumann

Note to the exhibition:   In 1987,, Laffoley’s longtime dealer, Douglas Walla, coerced him into compiling detailed narrative texts to explain the complex rationale of his most important paintings. These texts (called thought forms) were published in the first major monograph on his work, The Essential Paul Laffoley: Works from the Boston Visionary Cell (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), and they are presented in the present exhibition as walls texts that accompany each of the paintings (thereby allowing Laffoley thea means by which to explain—if albeit posthumously—h his own pictures).

Laffoley’s writings and interviews can be found on the Official Paul Laffoley Website

Kent Fine Art