How Tom of Finland’s Celebratory, Sexy Visions of Gay Love Have Empowered Others for over 60 Years

It was 1988, and an image of two muscular, happy men staring at each other lustily flashed onto the wall of a CalArts classroom in Los Angeles. It was a drawing by artist and former adman Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. He’d been invited by his friend and fellow artist, Mike Kelley, to give a lecture at the university.

Students sat rapt as he explained his seductive drawings of gay men, which had become emblems of both erotic art and equal rights since he began showing them in the 1950s.

“This was very typical of how eroticism was expressed at that time,” Tom of Finland said, in a thick Finnish accent, as he clicked through a series of his early works from the 1950s and ’60s. One showed a man sausaged into a leather jacket, standing next to a sailor; they eyed each other at a bar, pants bulging. In the mid-20th century, sexually explicit imagery was mostly banned, “but some eye contact and hints of what might happen next [were allowed],” the artist explained. “You don’t necessarily need to show a sexual action to express the erotic.”

Tom of Finland did go on to make more explicit work. But whether or not his drawings depicted full-frontal nudity, they all represented a joyous celebration of homosexuality and a fight against discrimination. The gay community recognized this, and his work has became not only a sensation, but a “beacon of hope,” said curator Graeme Flegenheimer. “It says, ‘it’s okay to be whoever you are.’”

Tom of Finland’s daring practice—and its impact on the artists who’ve come after him—is the subject of a show opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) next week. “TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland” will assemble art from every stage of Laaksonen’s output—from childhood sketches to pieces he made in the last years of his life (he died in 1991). These will mingle with objects relocated from his former home in Los Angeles, which now operates as the Tom of Finland Foundation, and work by artists including Kelley, John WatersRaymond Pettibon, and others who were influenced by his vision.

All of this will be brought together within a small house-cum-artwork that sits outside of the museum: Kelley’s Mobile Homestead (2012), a recreation of the artist’s childhood home, which now operates as an unconventional art space (it’s built to travel with ease). Inside, MOCAD’s team and the Tom of Finland Foundation recreated the interior of Laaksonen’s own Los Angeles perch, which Kelley frequented as both a friend and a collector.


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Tom of Finland Meets Mike Kelley

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1959, Graphite on paper, 11.06” x 8.50”, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection, © 1988 Tom of Finland Foundation. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

For much of his last decade, Touko Valio Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, the Finnish-born master of homoerotic art, lived in Los Angeles, where he produced his signature drawings of leather-clad bikers and tightly uniformed cops at his Craftsman-style home in Echo Park. Opening this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the intimate exhibition TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland will give visitors a glimpse of the artist’s former home and studio, bringing together over 200 works and objects. Rare sketches (including his last preparatory drawing from 1991, the year that he died) are displayed side-by-side with personal effects, like childhood prints from the 1920s, an illustrated condom packet and Laaksonen’s leather Harley cap. “I would imagine this exhibition will bring joy and lots of pleasure,” said Durk Dehner, the co-founder and president of the Tom of Finland Foundation.

The show also creates a cross-generational dialogue by incorporating the works of artists who were inspired by Laaksonen’s avant-garde, queer aesthetics: from Robert Mapplethorpe and Jim Shaw to Jess Scott and Raymond Pettibon. Also in conversation with Laaksonen is the late American artist Mike Kelley, whose Mobile Homestead (a permanent, public-art project replicating his childhood home) provides an appropriately domestic setting for the show. “What a pair of bad boys,” the director John Waters, also featured in the exhibition, told T. “One straight. One gay. Both crooked.”

On view from April 19 to May 19 at Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, MOCAD, 4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit.


By Benoît Loiseau


“TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland” | 19th April | Detroit

At Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead

The exhibition features work by Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920-1991) and incorporates artists who supported and admired his work over the years, including Richard Hawkins, Robert Mapplethorpe, Raymond Pettibon, Jim Shaw, and John Waters. The presentation will also include photographs, reference materials, and ephemera.

Tom of Finland’s drawings – remarkable not only for their masterful rendering, but also their fantastical representation of the male form – have been long celebrated for their radical role in broadening the popular understanding of Queer experience in art. Placed in context with his peers, the assemblage of these artworks engages a sensational narrative, one that helped define a generation.

Tom spent the last decade of his life between Finland and TOM House in Echo Park, Los Angeles, California. In partnering with Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, the exhibition will evoke the spirit of the home where Tom had his studio and lived during his final years. In their own way, both Tom and Mike spent their careers challenging the boundaries of art and social engagement, be it through their craft or thematic pursuits. The coupling of the two Foundations seeks to highlight the work of Queer artists across the globe and carry out the mission of protecting, preserving and promoting Queer art.


The exhibition will remain on view through 19th May 2018.




FILM: Tom of Finland – 22nd April MOCAD’s Café 78 4p

Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of the artist, one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century Gay culture. The film will be followed by a Q&A with exhibition curators Durk Dehner, S. R. Sharp, and Graeme Flegenheimer.

Naughty Drawing – 19th May MOCAD’s Café 78 2-4p

Naughty figure drawing with live models and cocktails. Hosted by Tylonn J. Sawyer.

This exhibition and programs deal with mature themes.
Adults visiting with youth must preview before entering exhibition or program.

Presenting sponsorship for TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland is provided by Equality Michigan. Generous support is provided by Anonymous, Christopher Burcham, Gretchen + Ethan Davidson, Doc Duhan, Nicole + Stephen Eisenberg, Sid Galton, Stephen Krawchuk, Jeff + Loren Gillis Newsom, Rob Hennig, CV Henriette, Colt Mix, Brien O’Brien, Daniel Parente, Stefano Pilati, Red Bull, Michael Reynolds, Rizzoli International Publications, Mayer Rus, the Shipley-Miller Foundation, Takoi, and Jon Wright. Generous in-kind support provided by Pabst Blue Ribbon, and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.