Artists Space, New York
The bulging muscles, throbbing members and shiny leather of men the illustrator drew defined the sexual tastes of generations of gay men – and expressed not sexual equality, but liberation.
Marriage is “a keystone of our social order”, Anthony Kennedy wrote this week in the supreme court decision legalising gay marriage in the United States. Sex, however, is something else. New York is getting set for a Pride weekend like none other, and the justified elation with which the city has greeted the Obergefell decision has made equality the theme of the celebrations.
But gay liberty is just as important as gay equality – and liberty, especially sexual liberty, is a more powerful and dangerous idea.
I was reminded of that on my recent visits to Artists Space, which is hosting a major show of the art of Tom of Finland, a cult illustrator of ithyphallic musclemen, motorcycle fiends and leather gods. The exhibition, spanning two spaces, is the largest showcase ever of Tom’s art: there are more than 180 drawings, featuring more boots than you’ll find in Hermès. At first glance they may seem to be nothing but pornographic fantasias. Yet Tom has had a devoted following among fine artists, especially Raymond Pettibon and the late Mike Kelley, and he played a key role in the dissemination of gay imagery and the fashioning of a nascent gay pride. His men might not be your type. But look with the eye of a historian, and Tom’s drawings appear much weightier than your average smut.
Tom of Finland was the nom de pornographe of Touko Laaksonen, who lived from 1920 to 1991. He was drafted into the Finnish army, then allied with the Germans against the invading Soviets – and although he unambiguously condemned Nazism throughout his career, he had a not altogether wholesome taste for Wehrmacht soldiers in jackboots. (Most of his early sexual experiences were with Germans.) After the war he went into advertising, and by day he crafted campaigns of happy heterosexual couples buying soft drinks and laundry detergent. By night, he was otherwise occupied.
His early colour gouaches, a highlight of this show, are daintier and camper than his more familiar butch look. The men wear trilbies and overcoats as they grope one another’s groins or simply ogle from the sidelines. In one extraordinarily sweet painting on paper from 1947, a sailor and a man in a bowtie are simply dancing, one’s hand on the other’s waist, their eyes locked as they sway across the floor. Only later, in the 1960s, did the bodies harden. The quiff gives way to the short-back-and-sides; lounge suits get supplanted by rawhide and jeans. Tom followed shifts in ideals of masculinity, though he crafted them as well. Have a gander at the website for any gay leather emporium – for research purposes only, of course! – and you can find breeches advertised as providing “the Tom of Finland look”. For a not small number of gay men, Tom provided a roadmap to self-definition and desire.
Tom’s sexual iconography made heavy use of archetypes: individuals were less important than categories, each one with a strict (and tight) uniform. Clothing, so key to gay signaling in the years before decriminalisation, plays a central role in Tom’s art; men hint at each other via neckerchiefs and tight trousers, then boots and leather, and even though everyone is fucking almost no-one is nude. In a 20-drawing sequence from 1977, a man kitted out in leather arrives at a verdant, homosocial pleasure garden; the sign outside, a little redundantly in Tom’s world, reads “MEN ONLY”. He espies a lumberjack on a bench, boots knee high, fly undone. They start going at it, only to be joined by a jockish type in baseball cap and tank top; then those three are joined by a beret-wearing soldier; then a sailor shows up, and then a cowboy – in chaps, naturally – and on it goes in a roundelay of oral and anal and manual exploration. None are named, none have backstories. (Maybe a few of them are even married!) Dignity and decency are neither here nor there. Only pleasure matters, and in Tom’s garden of delights pleasure is the highest moral virtue.
What pushes Tom’s drawings beyond pornography – and they are certainly that, in part – into something more enduring is that epicurean commitment: in the Tom of Finland universe, (homo)sexual pleasure isn’t just fun, it’s right. That was a bold position to take in an oppressive climate. Pornography was illegal in Finland when Laaksonen began drawing his cops and robbers. Homosexuality itself was illegal too; it was decriminalized in 1971, and “promotion of homosexuality” remained an offence for decades after. Tom was unfazed. His commitment to guiltless, strings-free, unadulterated pleasure – the pleasure of bodies, the pleasure of freedom – is expressed not only in the wealth of phalluses and orifices, but in the smiles of his motorcyclists and soldiers. Everyone is smiling. Whether active or passive, whether alone or in baroque combination, sex is a joy. Prisoners and wardens are grinning as they get it on through the bars of a jail cell. Even the guys in the sadomasochistic scenes are beaming – one chap is chained to a pole by a certain part of his anatomy, and couldn’t be happier about it.
My job is to think about these images as works of art, not to say whether this or that does or doesn’t turn me on. But I will confess that from my perch the smiles are the sexiest, as well as the most subversive, features of Tom’s drawings, while the dirtier aspects can be a bit repetitive. The male sex organ is depicted not so much as a body part, but more as a fetish object in its own right – a thing independent of the male body, worthy of intense, delirious veneration. The penises have lives of their own, protruding from Tom’s leathermen and soldiers as sticky, fleshy totems of insubordination. The caudal sides of all these men, on the other hand, are depicted with much less care. Throughout his career, Tom drew bottoms in a cursory, even cartoonish fashion – either cannonball tight, or else lazily sketched as a whisper of curved lines. The sailor in the pleasure park, depicted from the back as he spies on the foursome under way, has almost no buttocks at all, whereas his colossal member can be seen through his thighs: a weird, anatomically aberrant representation.
Why the heavy-handedness with knobs and the inattention to asses? Perhaps because, later in his career, Tom was in competition with photographic pornography. When he started out, his illegal drawings were one of the few sources of sexual titillation for men still in the closet; later on, his oversized phalluses offered a means to distinguish his drawings from an avalanche of dirty images. A revealing supplement to this show features Tom’s “reference pages”, sheets of source material that he clipped from both porn mags and general interest titles. They are glued down in strict typological arrangements, like a perverted version of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas. The smiles of Finnish athletes and catalogue models, soon to be redeployed in Tom’s subversive purposes, cover dozens of pages. Cases are filled with cut-outs of bikers, soldiers, and indeed those jackbooted Nazis. One Wehrmacht officer is seen from behind, looking over his shoulder in an almost coquettish pose. Another is seated on stairs and smiling; Tom took a pen to that photo, and drew him stroking his penis.
The Artists Space show is right not to shy away from Tom’s fascination with the Wehrmacht, or the endurance of a Nazi aesthetic in gay men’s later fetishisation of leather and boots. It’s an enduring dilemma: back in 1974, Susan Sontag argued that “rightwing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface”. Yet in Tom’s vision desire is so omnipotent, and pleasure such a moral imperative, that it has room for even the very people who say they want to exterminate you.
And perhaps that is Tom’s lesson for us boys revelling in the supreme court’s landmark decision: that even though marriage is a fundamental marker of civil equality, it reinforces rather than upsets the makeup of society as such. Pleasure can be a much more radical force, and one still worth fighting for. Marriage makes you a citizen; desire makes you free.
Tom of Finland: the Pleasure of Play is at Artists Space, New York until 23 August.
By Jason Farago