Paul Laffoley, whose annotated diagrammatic paintings, with their kaleidoscopic representations of abstruse philosophic systems, made him one of the most distinctive and cerebral of the outsider artists, died on Nov. 16 at his home in Boston. He was 80.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Douglas Walla, his dealer at Kent Fine Art in Manhattan.
Mr. Laffoley (pronounced LAH-fuh-lee), an architect by training, translated his ideas about time travel, other dimensions, astrology and alien life-forms onto square canvases that he illustrated, in brilliant colors, with precisely rendered spirals, pinwheels, eyes and architectural forms, annotated around the borders with text in vinyl press-on letters.
Many of the works incorporate mandalas. Others look like floor plans for the future, or cosmic board games. Their texts often pay homage to the thinkers behind the work, their names simply strung together in a row. The Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin recurs frequently, along with Goethe, Blake and Jung.
Mr. Laffoley drew from myriad sources. He claimed that he had seen the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” 873 times.
In many paintings, the margins are given over to gnomic aphorisms. Along the bottom of “The Visionary Point” (1970), a painting with an eyelike form emitting spiky beams of yellow light, Mr. Laffoley applied these words: “Time moving forward meets time moving backward at the visionary point which precedes the world mystical experience, the Omega Point.”
Mr. Laffoley thought of his “architectonic thought forms” as portals allowing the viewer to enter, transcend time and space, and achieve an expanded state of consciousness.
“It is kind of like taking money out of a bank machine, when you’re looking at a screen and you’re called upon to touch the screen,” he said of “Thanaton III,” a painting from 1989, in a 1999 interview shown on “Disinformation,” a television series on Channel 4 in Britain. “You know that you can’t go through the screen, but you do also know that there’s something behind the screen that’s organizing the experience that you have, only in this case the payoff is not money but a type of knowledge.”
He said that work, which shows an all-seeing eye, two upraised palms, several pinwheel forms and a uniformed alien, his head glowing, originated in an exhortation to him by an extraterrestrial, who explained, among other things, how to move the entire universe “into the fifth-dimensional realm.”
Linda Dalrymple Henderson, an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin, called Mr. Laffoley “a model for a younger generation of artists interested in the occult and visionary experiences” in an interview with The Boston Globe in 2007. “He’s been treated as an outsider,” she added, “but he may turn out to be the ultimate insider.”
Paul George Laffoley Jr. was born on Aug. 14, 1935, in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in nearby Belmont. His father, Paul, was a banker with the Cambridge Trust Company and taught classes on taxation at the Harvard Business School. On the side, he was a trance medium at séances at a local theater.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in art from Brown University in 1958, Mr. Laffoley studied architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, but he left when it became clear that he did not fit in. For about a year he underwent psychiatric treatment for what he called “a mild state of catatonia,” submitting to eight electroshock sessions.
He began living part time in New York, where he briefly roomed at Andy Warhol’s firehouse studio on the Upper East Side. He earned his keep by watching television from 2 to 5 a.m. and reporting to Warhol what he saw — Indian-head test patterns, for the most part, whose visual imprint inspired his interest in Hindu and Buddhist mandalas.
He also worked for an architectural firm designing floor plans for the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was fired after suggesting, in a meeting with the project’s main architect, Minoru Yamasaki, that the two towers be connected by pedestrian bridges.
Returning to the Boston area, Mr. Laffoley began painting in the basement of his parents’ house. One early work, “The Kali-Yuga: The End of the Universe at 424826 A.D.,” completed in 1965, had as its central image a large egg-shaped form encircled by a serpent. Within it, a meteor streaked across starry space toward an outstretched hand.
In 1968 he rented a utility room in an office building on Broomfield Street. There he squatted for the next 40 years, using the room as a studio, living space and headquarters of the Boston Visionary Cell, which he founded in 1971 “to develop and advance visionary art,” as stated in its charter. The organization’s name earned him a visit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He began showing his work in countercultural cafes and bookstores. Several of his paintings on view at the Orson Welles Theater mysteriously ended up in an exhibition tent at the Woodstock music festival in 1969 — exposure that led, improbably, to a show at the Boston Playboy Club.
Around this time, as stacks of books on arcane knowledge rose around him, Mr. Laffoley began keeping handwritten illustrated journals with voluminous annotations. These became the basis of many of his paintings, which included “Alchemy: The Telenomic Process of the Universe” (1973) and “Black-White Hole: The Force of the History of the Universe to Produce Total Non-Existence” (1976).
Mr. Laffoley cut a striking figure, invariably dressed in black, with a shaved head. After losing a foot to osteomyelitis in 2001, he asked a Hollywood prop maker to fashion him a prosthetic lion foot, a reference to his birth sign, Leo. He wore the foot at public appearances.