Tom of Finland

Artists Space, New York

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1977, Graphite on paper, 17.50” x 21.25”, © 1977 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1977, Graphite on paper, 17.50” x 21.25”, © 1977 Tom of Finland Foundation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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.

Artforum

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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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