Welcome to the mangled and beautiful mind of Paul Laffoley: artist, amputee, cult hero and time-machine inventor… Rupert Howe investigates.
At an art conference in 2004, Paul Laffoley shocked his audience by appearing at the lectern with a lion’s paw in place of the lower part of his right leg. Three years before, the American artist had fallen badly in his Boston studio. Recuperating on the hospital ward after an operation to remove his leg below the knee, Laffoley was visited by a group of psychiatrists who wanted to measure what they called his Happiness Index. “What,” they asked, clustering around his bed, “would make you feel better about the loss of your leg?”
Laffoley’s reply, “a lion’s foot”, was not the answer the doctors were expecting. Laffoley, though, had never been more serious in his life. He made contact through a mutual friend with Stan Winston, the late Hollywood special effects designer who made his fortune with the Terminator films. Intrigued, Winston fashioned a lion’s limb that would attach to Laffoley’s stump exactly like a conventional prosthetic. But… hang on a minute. Why a lion? “I’m a Leo!” says Laffoley, as if merely stating the obvious.
With his shaved head and mad professor’s stare, above the knees the 69-year-old resembles a cross between Buddha and Back To The Future‘s Doc Brown. (His voice, appropriately enough, is an exact replica of Hubert J Farnsworth, the aged scientist in Futurama.) Yet his physical appearance is positively mundane compared to the workings of his mind as expressed through his art: dense, geometric paintings which resemble Eastern mandalas or the covers of fantastical 70s prog rock albums; six-foot square arrangements of diagrams and texts; images of flying saucers, occult symbols, human skulls and impossible mathematical shapes. Intricately detailed, they can look almost computer generated, but are in fact painstakingly pieced together by Laffoley using only paint, ink and stick-on letters.
These fascinating works, which Laffoley has been producing since the late-60s, are based on encyclopaedic and tireless research. His references and reading weave together ancient Eygptian lore, Medieval mysticism and the theories of 20th century scientist-dreamers such as Wilhelm Reich. Obsessed with the relationship between science and the spiritual, with time travel and out-of-body experiences, he returns again and again to themes of transcendence and higher consciousness, many of which are outlined in long texts on his gallery’s website. (Be warned: the essay accompanying his 1992 work Dimensionality: The Manifestation Of Fate alone runs to 12,000 words.)
This mix of learning and conjecture has seen Laffoley labelled a visionary artist; it’s a description he doesn’t seem to mind. “It has to do with the connection between the physical and metaphysical,” he concurs. “The structure of the mystical experience.” Laffoley has linked that structure to a four-dimensional mathematical figure known as the Klein Bottle, which when drawn as a diagram looks like a trumpet bent round on itself. He on to explains that such a shape allows our consciousness to pass seamlessly through time and space – or, as Laffoley puts it, “from one dimensional realm to another”.
It’s probably clear by now that Laffoley’s explanations of his own working methods rarely simplify matters. When I call him at his studio at 9am on a Monday morning, it turns out he’s just finished fitting his (conventional) artificial leg and morning reading. Naturally, he was immersed in nothing so lowly as a newspaper, opting instead for a chapter of Joscelyn Godwin’s 1987 book The Harmonies of Heaven, subtitled ‘The Spiritual Dimension of Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde’. And then, before I can stop him, he’s off into a description of a new painting which takes in Plato’s Republic, the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria, the Faust legend and 19th century religious doctrine Theosophy. It comes as no surprise to learn he usually works a ten-hour day. “I consider what I do to be like inventions,” he says. “An invention can be very quick when you think of it. But the craft of art can go on for a long time.”
Born in the university town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Laffoley’s early life was outwardly conventional – his mother was a staunch Roman Catholic with an addiction to soap operas. By contrast, his father, who worked as a lawyer and some-time lecturer at Harvard Business School, maintained a life-long fascination with eastern religions and the occult, even performing as a medium at a Boston theatre. When Laffoley was diagnosed with mild Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, as a child he found himself first examined by psychiatrists (who pronounced him to have an intellect around “room temperature”) then assigned a tutor – an Indian Brahmin who taught in the Mathematics department at Harvard and told Laffoley’s father, “ I can fix him up.”
Laffoley claims his IQ “rose immediately” after meeting the Brahmin. Certainly by the time he graduated from Brown University with a degree in Classics and Art History, it was up to 183 – which puts him amongst an elite group of geniuses. “I just said to myself, ‘This means an IQ is stupid’,” Laffoley demurs. On leaving Brown in 1962, Laffoley found himself taken up – and quickly dropped – by a series of prestigious academic institutions, companies and fellow artists, many of whom were unable or unwilling to engage with his prodigious intellect and unorthodox ideas.
He enrolled to study architecture at the Harvard Graduate School Of Design (only to be asked to leave after suggesting a solution to low-cost housing based on genetically modified plants). He worked briefly for New York architect Frederick Kiesler (who chased him out of his studio when Laffoley damaged a sculpture he was supposed to be cleaning) and for Emery Roth & Sons, where he helped draw up the floorplans for the World Trade Center (and was fired for daring to suggest the twin towers should be linked by walkways). And, after cold-calling as many famous artists as he could find numbers for, he was hired as part of a team watching a bank of televisions left on day and night in Andy Warhol’s Harlem studio. Laffoley got the graveyard shift, between 2am and dawn, when all that was being broadcast were testcards. The repetitions of the cards across multiple screens reminded him of Warhol’s own work. When he reported his observations back to the pop-artist, however, Laffoley claims Warhol seemed affronted and refused to discuss the matter further.
By 1968, Laffoley had had enough of the Big Apple. He returned to Boston to work on realising his own artistic ambitions. Unable to afford a proper live-work space, he rented instead a utility room in an office block – a room he ended up living and working in alone for the next 38 years. Only in 2006, after his landlord finally threatened to evict him, did he move into a purpose-built studio.
Laffoley has always been a peripheral figure in contemporary art. The artist group he is cited as being a founder of, the Boston Visionary Cell, has just one member: him. Although his new works sell for upwards of $95,000, he is best known by a wide spectrum of obsessives and cranks. Over the past decade, though, there’s been increasing interest from cutting-edge curators and museums, and this May his work forms the centrepiece of a new show at one of Paris’s premier modern art spaces, Palais De Tokyo. Laffoley admits he’s delighted with the prospect. Although even Palais De Tokyo’s dramatic spaces fall some distance short of his ideal: “a giant sphere where you can have different works talking to each other across the space, with the viewer in the middle.”
In many respects, Laffoley is both a true visionary and a product of far-out 60s idealism. His work is often utopian in outlook and hallucinatory in execution, evoking an art history which spans eons rather than mere millennia. Had he been less intellectually minded, he might have become one of the first art stars of the psychedelic era. Yet he was as misunderstood by 60s hippy radicals as he was by his fellow artists and architects. When Timothy Leary turned up at one of his early shows in Boston he simply turned to Laffoley and told him, “I like your sense of humour.” And when a rogue gallerist transported one of his shows to Woodstock and exhibited it in a tent, Laffoley drove to the festival in a truck and took it back. He also claims never to have sampled LSD, though when he exhibited in a rock venue in Boston in the 1970s, bemused visitors would ask the manager, “What does he take to do this?”
Laffoley dismisses such interest in his work as superficial. “It’s like in the 19th century,” he says. “Because artists in Paris liked absinthe, there was an association made between being creative and the substance. I don’t think creativity has anything to do with that. It’s behind everything, so you can’t easily account for it.” For Laffoley, art isn’t just about sensations; it’s a way of accessing thoughts and feelings which might otherwise remain hidden or closed off. In 1975 he claims to have “received” the idea for a time machine based around a kind of gyroscope made of nested fibreglass spheres. Named the Levogyre, the machine wouldn’t actually transport anyone. Rather, the user’s mental abilites would be enhanced to the point where they could see far into the past and future. It all sounds hopelessly far-fetched, yet Laffoley insists he has the theories to back up his conjectures.
He also says that to come to an understanding of his work requires effort on the part of the viewer (one of his best-known paintings, Thanaton III, actually requires people to place their hands above the picture’s surface on special pads and stare into an all-seeing eye). Not to mention patience. A lot of patience. “I don’t do the kind of art that you see if you go to the meat market in New York,” he says. “In terms of executing it and observing it, it takes a long time. People who have bought my work say the usual time it takes to comprehend it is 15 years.”
It should come as no surprise to learn that Laffoley is obsessive about everything. He says he likes watching films in his spare time, but admits that he tends to watch the same ones over and over, especially Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and 50s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Because of Asperger’s, he says his brain “operates in a different way” – and, certainly, it might help explain the almost overwhelming detail and sense of a private world evoked by some of his paintings. But he’s equally happy to entertain the possibility that he might just be, well… a bit crazy. “The question is, ‘What is madness?’” he asks cheerfully. “Think of what happened from the 16th- to the 19th-century, from the Renaissance to Freud. People’s ideas as to what constitutes being nuts keep changing. Maybe we’re just starting to wise up to that’s how the mind operates.”
Words: Rupert Howe
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #18, Apr/May 2009