In her memoir “Just Kids,” Patti Smith recounts a day in the 1960s when she and her then-boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe scoured the used-paperback stalls of Times Square, looking for inspiration. “Robert,” she writes, “found a few loose pages from a portfolio of sketches of Aryan boys in motorcycle caps by Tom of Finland.” Touko “Tom of Finland” Laaksonen’s work — stylized drawings of hypermasculine gay figures that turned postwar gay stereotypes on their head — would come to have a great impact on Mapplethorpe’s famously explicit photographs of male nudes, which were at the center of the culture war of the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Jesse Helms famously waved them on the Senate floor as an argument against public funding for the arts.)
This spring sees homages to both men, who eventually became friends. Beginning next month, a gargantuan two-part Mapplethorpe retrospective is on view at the Getty and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through July; a documentary called “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” premieres on HBO in April 4; and a new book, “TOM HOUSE” (Rizzoli, $55), documents Laaksonen’s historic Los Angeles home, which was not only where the artist lived and worked over the last decade of his life, but also the nexus of a gay biker counterculture — in some ways, a setting where the artist’s work could come to life.
A book signing for “TOM HOUSE: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles” takes place March 12 from 4 to 6 p.m. at David Kordansky Gallery, tomoffinlandhouse.com. “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium” is on view March 15-July 31 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, getty.edu, and March 20-July 31 at Lacma, lacma.org.
By Tom Delavan