Tom of Finland | Through 23 August | New York

CRITICS’ PICKS
CURRENT PICK / MUST SEE

ARTISTS SPACE EXHIBITIONS
38 Greene Street, 3rd Floor

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1976, Graphite on paper, 12” x 9”, Gift from artist, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #88.77, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1976, Graphite on paper, 12” x 9”, Gift from artist, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #88.77, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

The subtitle of the Tom of Finland exhibition currently at Artists Space, The Pleasure of Play, points to a key aspect of the artist’s work: its fundamental cheerfulness. Tom, who admired the work of Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell alike, gave his homoerotic drawings of well-muscled men in uniform (and in various states of undress) a subtly wholesome bent. He once vowed, “My men were going to be proud and happy men.” His young bucks’ cocks are mammoth, but often their good-natured grins are bigger. The highly repressive decades during which Tom’s work developed could not stem his innate sex-positivity.

This two-part exhibition, the largest to date in the US (where he first became known in the mid-1950s through his drawings for the Los Angeles quarterly Physique Pictorial), features nearly two hundred drawings, hung loosely by medium and theme rather than chronology, and an even greater number of reference collages—mass-media clippings arranged by type that helped guide the prominent cleft chins and flared-thigh jodhpurs that defined Tom’s hypermasculine ideal. Early gouaches from the mid-1940s feature urbane rakes whose illicit behavior is only occasionally explicit; but soon thereafter, Tom provided close-up views of every possible combination of orifice and appendage, as modeled by bikers, sailors, loggers, and cowboys. A standout in the main exhibition is a twenty-part 1977 series starring Tom’s recurring leather-daddy character, Kake, whose cruising instigates an orgy that grows one by one with a stream of onlookers turned joiners. It’s remarkable, not least because Tom rendered the profusion of compound convexities—nipples, biceps, asses, abs—in the unforgiving cross-hatching of pen and ink. His skill in graphite is no less extraordinary: Portraits made in the ’80s seem lit from within, all oiled skin and gleaming leather. But it’s a surreal intergalactic image that endures, providing a suitable analogy for Tom’s global effect on gay culture. In it, a brawny, mustachioed Nordic man penetrates planet Earth in smiling ecstasy.

By Claire Lehmannartforum

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