Tom of Finland’s Hypermasculine Gay Images in “The Pleasure of Play”

For several decades, beginning in the 1950s, Touko Laaksonen, a corporate advertising designer based in Helsinki, moonlighted as a pornographic draftsman named Tom of Finland.

Working primarily in the medium of graphite drawing, he created a visual world of pneumatically buff, spectacularly well-endowed men, who — dressed as lumberjacks, truck drivers, soldiers, bikers, or not at all — met in complicated, often multiparty sexual congress. The action could get rough, but the drawing was always smooth — fine-lined, subtly shaded — and the faces of the participants almost invariably sunny.

The work, widely circulated in printed formats, has been exhibited sporadically in New York galleries, but never in the quantity, or with the historical perspective, afforded by the current two-site Artists Space show, split between a survey of almost 200 drawings at 38 Greene Street and a display of supplementary material (mostly collages) at 55 Walker Street.

An untitled Tom of Finland work from 1975. With his images of buff gay men, the artist all but invented the hypermasculine “clone” look of the 1970s, with its defining wardrobe of leather and jeans. Tom of Finland Foundation, Permanent Collection

An untitled Tom of Finland work from 1975. With his images of buff gay men, the artist all but invented the hypermasculine “clone” look of the 1970s, with its defining wardrobe of leather and jeans. Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection

Mr. Laaksonen, who died in 1991, was forthright about his reasons for making his work: In addition to giving expression to his personal fantasies, he wanted to produce an image of gay men that counteracted the atmosphere of oppression and the stereotypes of effeminacy he had grown up with. In the process, he all but invented the hypermasculine “clone” look of the 1970s, with its defining wardrobe of leather and jeans.

Still, for the influential role he played in bringing us here, to a freer, queerer place, this artist deserves deep thanks. Seen in more intimate settings, his art can still inspire its intended delights.

Complete article by Holland CotterThe New York Times logo

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