“This dirty but dignified, oddly commercial biopic of the artist who inspired the modern-day s/m gay leather scene is now the Finnish government’s official entry in the 2017 foreign-film Oscar race. That’s what I call patriotic penis progress, and I hope it wins.”
TOM OF FINLAND (ARTISTS SPACE, NEW YORK) The year’s sexiest show was also one of its smartest. In the gallery’s main space, Tom’s meticulously refined drawings—as elegant as they are erotic—were installed in a series of parallel corridors, offering viewers a series of intimate encounters with the works and engendering an excitement not unlike that of cruising. Even when they’re not designed as storyboard sequences, his pictures have a terrific narrative compression—an energy straining for the inevitable climax. His pumped-up supermen are ready for anything, often in full view of voyeurs who act as stand-ins for an avid audience. At the satellite gallery on Walker Street, the annex show of densely collaged scrapbook pages—faces, physiques, fetish wear—was a fascinating glimpse into Tom’s private library of sources and inspirations.
Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for the New Yorker and photography books for Photographmagazine. He contributes regularly to Aperture, W, and Document. Untitled Anonymous, a book featuring found photographs from his collection of male images, was published in September by Andrew Roth’s PPP Editions.
Artists Space, New York
THE ARTISTS SPACE SHOW Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play presented more than half a century of the artist’s drawings, gouaches, paper dolls, and photocollages made from advertising imagery; together, they set up a narrative described as existing in “dialectical relationship” to a mainstream culture in which both pornography and homosexuality were illegal. And indeed, throughout his career as an advertising executive in Helsinki, Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) contributed to the ever-expanding lexicon of images representing straight family life in postwar Europe. But after hours, he cut up and collaged these images as studies for the drawings through which he would invent an equally coded language for a masculinity defined by smiling sadomasochistic play and eighteen-inch cocks. The collages, which the artist made from the mid-1960s until his death and are far rougher than the drawings, mix head shots of Che Guevara, Elvis, and Muhammad Ali with the 1970s haircuts and bad skin of nameless male models (who are not without charm). In the drawings that result, the players are undifferentiated: They share body types and facial features, their smiles and similarity displacing any awkwardness. They are drawn in such a way—hardly ever in color—that they become much neater, as if mechanically reproduced, or made from dust in various densities. They look designed, like porno Seurats—ready for coffee mugs.
Tom of Finland is all about inclusion; his cast of characters, from Kake to Tom’s Men, are icons of gay representation. His work also reminds me quite a lot of American art from the early-to-mid-twentieth century, art that belongs to a vaguely delimited but unmistakable tradition that includes Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell and certain Charles Demuths, as well as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood—regionalism. It’s American Gothic like you never imagined it—well, actually, I did. Eventually, of course, the outsider becomes an insider. Rockwell was never an outsider—he was always inside, inside Boy’s Life magazine and on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and then inside the Guggenheim, in the splendid retrospective curated by Robert Rosenblum. Bob Ross, Margaret Keane, and R. Crumb all used to be on the outside, but things change; the cognoscenti have them in group shows. Books I read in college, from Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture to Derrida, helped permit the absorption of the outside into correct culture, which is to say, the process of assimilation. In those years of dedifferentiation, Tom’s drawings could be found at a magazine shop near campus in a range of publications from hard-core porn to Representations.
“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,” Jason Farago notes in his review for The Guardian. “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.” In Tom’s own words, “The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!” And it’s true: The uniforms are recycled every year on the runways. When I came back from Paris as a teenager, I recall buying Vogue Paris at the airport and seeing models marching under the Arc de Triomphe in huge leather trench coats—Claude Montana’s storm-trooper collection. Hot.