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Paul Laffoley, 80; his art depicted portals

Painter Paul Laffoley in his Boston studio. Globe Staff/file 2007/Boston Globe

In his Bromfield Street studio, Paul Laffoley created 6-foot-by-6-foot square canvases that were meant to be seen and read. He extensively annotated most paintings by neatly applying text to each canvas in small, vinyl stick-on letters. Some paintings were mandala-like, others resembled board games, and they addressed topics such as time travel, astrology, mathematical theories, religion, black holes, alien life-forms, and a fourth dimension. His painting styles varied as widely as his topics.

“I’m neither a spiritualist nor a materialist. I’m an alchemist,” he once told Steven Moskowitz, a longtime friend and artist. “People talk about blending science and art. You can’t blend them, you subsume them.”

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The paintings were portals, Mr. Laffoley said, a way to slip out of a confining world view and enter into a more expansive set of beliefs. His conversations, meanwhile, could be as dizzyingly cerebral as his creations.

“When people met Paul, everybody — including myself — wanted to bring a camera or a recorder with them, kind of like a sporting event, so you’d have ‘replay’ to understand what he was talking about,” said Douglas Walla, who as principal of Kent Fine Art in New York City was Mr. Laffoley’s dealer and friend for more than 25 years.

In recent years, Mr. Laffoley’s health was brittle. When one leg was amputated below the knee because of a bone infection, he commissioned a prosthetic shaped like a lion’s foot to wear for special occasions (he was a Leo).Heart ailments necessitated a pacemaker and he kept a defibrillator close by when his lectures at events lasted hours.Mr. Laffoley died of congestive heart failure Nov. 16 in his Boston home. He was 80.

“The imagination is all we have. It is behind everything we do or think,” he wrote to Walla in 2012. “It is not based on any religion, scientific pursuit, or philosophical discussion. It is first in life with no equal. It operates while we are asleep, and when we rise. No one knows what it is, nor should that be of concern, except for learning how to not suppress it.”

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Paul G. Laffoley Jr. grew up in Belmont. He was the only child of the former Mary Lyons and Paul Laffoley Sr., a banker at Cambridge Trust Co. who also was “a member of a Spiritualist church in Boston and a practicing trance medium,” Linda Dalrymple Henderson, an art historian at the University of Texas, wrote in a chapter for the forthcoming book “The Essential Paul Laffoley.”

“The Flower of Evil,” 1971.Kent Gallery, New York

“He taught me yoga when I was 7 years old,” Mr. Laffoley said of his father in a 2007 Globe interview. “He also disbelieved in gravity.”

At Brown University, Mr. Laffoley triple-majored in classics, philosophy, and art history, and he told the Globe that after graduating he was treated with shock therapy for neurasthenia. He studied architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and said he was kicked out for straying from the prevailing modernist approach.

Moving to New York City, he worked for architect Frederick Kiesler and later for a firm that was designing floors for the World Trade Center until, according to Mr. Laffoley, he was dismissed for proposing that pedestrian bridges connect the towers. Artist Andy Warhol paid him to watch television in the middle of the night and take notes. Mr. Laffoley attributed the mandala structure of some later paintings to the experience of staring at test patterns.

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While at Brown, Mr. Laffoley began introducing text into his paintings. In later years, he considered those works without words “nudes.” In 1968, he moved into a one-room studio in a Bromfield Street office building, which was his workplace and home for 38 years. Towering piles of books sprouted. Mr. Laffoley read and marked up each volume extensively with precision drafting pens that left “eyelash-thin lines,” Moskowitz wrote in the chapter he contributed to “The Essential Paul Laffoley,” adding: “Some pages have almost every sentence underlined.”

He also founded the organization Boston Visionary Cell, and after sculpting a room-size recreation of Jerusalem for a 1972 Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit, Mr. Laffoley told the Globe: “I consider myself a visionary artist. I have visions myself. I want to work with vision-inducing processes.”

“Mr. Laffoley’s works may seem impenetrable, but they are not nonsensical,” Ken Johnson wrote in 2013 in The New York Times of a Kent Fine Art show. “They limn a richly provocative cartography of consciousness itself and its heretofore under-realized possibilities.”

Globe art critic Christine Temin, however, wrote that she “couldn’t make head or tail” out of a 1983 show of Mr. Laffoley’s work. Reviewing a 1990 exhibition, she wrote that one of his paintings was “as complex as Laffoley’s previous work — and, to this viewer, as unfathomable.”

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In 2010, Globe art critic Sebastian Smee found Mr. Laffoley’s paintings “eye-catching,” and added: “They’re hard to parse, but they’re in a visual register unlike anything else in the show.”

“I think what was so marvelous was his confidence in what he was exploring and the importance of what he was doing that was so outside the mainstream,” Henderson, the art historian, said of Mr. Laffoley. “He was always looking, always interested in material that would upset the status quo, that would challenge the standard belief. This idea of the shock, shaking you out of your complacency, is something that stayed with Paul.”

Walla said Mr. Laffoley took a “transdisciplinary” approach to combining images and words, hard science and science fiction, philosophy, and topical allusions. Paintings began with hand-drawn pencil lines and “took two or three years to evolve,” Walla said. “It was all very meticulous, like it was laid out one square inch at a time.”

Mr. Laffoley created “diagrammatic systems of knowledge meant to augment consciousness,” Henderson wrote in her contribution to “The Essential Paul Laffoley,” and added that he engaged in “multiple levels of both space and time.”

She added in an interview that she has “never known anyone with that kind of range of knowledge, the depth of knowledge.” Yet Mr. Laffoley also sought inspiration in less cerebral venues, such as the 1951 science fiction film “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

“I have seen this movie, now, over 750 times,” he once wrote, “most of which were not on the silver screen but in the ‘Lux Theatre’ of the mind.”

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Friends held a private service for Mr. Laffoley, who left no immediate survivors, and they will announce a public memorial gathering in 2016.

Even in his later years — pacemaker in place, defibrillator in tow, while being treated for diabetes and a weakening heart — Mr. Laffoley “wanted to attend every show that had his work in it,” Walla said. “Even if it was just one picture in a show, he wanted to go every single time somebody put something on a nail.”

In his 2012 letter to Walla, Mr. Laffoley stressed that it is important to “always have people around you that love you and let you work from your imagination. This is all that can be, and all that should be. And whatever you do, do not die. There is no percentage in being dead. You will miss out on what happens next.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.