The Norman Rockwell of gay pornographers, Tom of Finland imagined utopian tableaux of Olympian fucking, a world of unbound sexual pleasure where nary a worry interrupts a cock’s travels from ass to mouth and back again. In Tom’s drawings, sex happens outdoors, on motorcycles, in the woods or in prison, and it happens often — so often, and with such salubrious lust (even the s/m boys are having fun), that these once-scandalous pleasures nearly come off as quotidian romps.
That “another day, another orgy” feeling suffuses Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play, an elegantly installed retrospective at Artists Space that surveys five decades of work by the Finnish artist, who died in 1991. These 200-odd drawings and gouaches, plus many more collaged studies, are a hat-tip to an artist who operated under the pop-culture radar even as he was by turns influenced by and influential in its image-making.
Born Touko Laaksonen in 1920, Tom is his country’s best-known artist after Alvar Aalto, though hardly a cultural counselor’s easiest sell. He began drawing dirty pictures in his late teens, around the same time he enrolled in a correspondence class to study advertising. After a stint in the army (whose officers he would fetishize on paper), Tom studied music and freelanced in graphic design, eventually rising to the post of senior art director at McCann Erickson’s Helsinki office, where he worked until age 53.
The commodity isn’t Coke but
a cock as girthy as a soda can
and hung nearly to the knee.
Tom’s day job in advertising makes a perfect foil for his erotic side work, which was disseminated in magazines like Physique Pictorial and via underground networks of friends and associates. Here the commodity isn’t Coke but a cock as girthy as a soda can and hung nearly to the knee (or spiking wildly in a monster erection). If it weren’t for an unzipped fly and a hand fondling a member, a trio of dashing gentlemen in a 1946 gouache could be selling sport coats and cravats. Adman or pornographer? In Tom they were one and the same.
Tom’s men are a steroidal image of perfection: square-jawed, clean-cut mannequins of Marlboro Man masculinity. Though tweaked as fashions and hairstyles changed, Tom’s men rarely varied. Rendered in a meticulous photorealism based on found photos from magazines and ads, they feel studied and clean, with a machined, cartoonish quality (a few of the artist’s more expressionist sketches underscore that fact). Their biggest turn-off is this rigorous sameness.
But there was safety in uniformity. The arc of Tom’s career traces the struggle for gay rights; this show is fortuitously timed to the landmark SCOTUS affirmation of same-sex marriage. Against that backdrop, the constancy of Tom’s images was ballast, their joyousness an escape from shame. Like Rockwell’s renditions of happy families on Turkey Day, Tom’s pictures rarely addressed struggle or guilt. We may catch glimpses of body anxiety in a 1960s-era series alluding to the Mr. Universe contest or an unspoken terror in early drawings of SS officers (he distanced himself from the latter in later life). But just about everyone here is having a good time.
It’s no surprise that Tom influenced an artist like Robert Mapplethorpe, who helped him secure his first major New York show in 1980. But Tom’s plumped pectorals and globular glutes also seeped into the American mainstream. Take photographer Bruce Weber, who took cues from Tom’s biker boys in his iconic, erotic Calvin Klein underwear and jeans ads beginning in the early 1980s.
After all, sex sells. And no one knew that better than Tom.
Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play
Through August 23