Review: Tom of Finland

Touko Laaksonen’s work has been elevated to the white cube under the auspices of “anti-normativity.”
Tom of Finland gives the finger to such earnest critique, then shoves that finger up your asshole and licks it clean.


Installation view from Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play,  2015 Artists Space. Image courtesy Daniel Pérez

“Tom of Finland” was the creative pseudonym of Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), a Finnish artist and ad man best known for elaborate ink drawings of men having sex with each other.  The tableaux are elaborate in their detail, in their execution, and in the elaborate sexual cornucopias they depict. The most notorious are orgies of inexpressible Dionysian dexterity. Walking through the show, my companions and I vigorously debated the physiognomic feasibility of various constellations, to the dismay of the galleristas on duty, reaching a consensus of “difficult but mostly feasible.” Less debatable is the instant recognizability of Laaksonen’s distinctive aesthetic: chiseled Nordic facial bones; bulging asses and crotches so gigantic they’re just an inch from the grotesque; force, bondage, and leather; and a confident hypermasculinity in every gesture, both an assertion of dominance and an implicit sexual solicitation. These are the proprietary rights of a trademark that has made Tom of Finland probably the single most important influence on gay men’s visual sensibility since World War II. His style is inimitable but unmistakable once you’ve seen it.

Now filling both locations of Artists’ Space in Soho, Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play, is the largest single show of the artist’s work to date. In the Walker Street space, notebooks of Laaksonen’s collages are displayed in horizontal glass cases, while the gallery on Greene Street is installed with a maze of walls hung the full set of 1940s gouaches, 180 drawings, and over 300 reference pages covering his entire career as an illustrator. Though representing only a fraction of the thousands upon thousands of images he produced in his lifetime, it’s enough to convey the work’s seminal impact on virtually every segment of the contemporary homosexual imaginary, from Abercrombie & Fitch’s suggestive softcore to the leather stylings of XXX porn.

No less articulate is the endless iterative polyvalence of Laaksonen’s sexual imaginary. You’d think that there are only so many ways to brandish and worship a giant, erect cock, but that idea is belied by these images, which range from the tame tug-of-war of the early works——one or two men, often dressed, sometimes subtly touching but frequently simply watching each other, their dicks just barely contained by scraps of fabric——to the cum-drenched leather fuckfests of the later drawings, with their spewing phallic centerpieces. Laaksonen’s commitment to exhausting his material from every possible angle is inspiring. If you get tired of the thematic repetition, it’s only because it’s easy to focus on the sex and miss one of the most enlivening components of this work:  a wry good humor, full of winks, nudges, and grins.

Underrepresented in the show are the images with which Laaksonen’s multi-frame graphic narratives would often conclude, their protagonists sprawled spent and soaked on the ground and dumb, satiated smiles on their faces, conveying not just the immersive allure of sexual hedonism but its fleeting, awkward nature. This tongue-in-cheek awareness separates Tom of Finland’s work from mindless beefcake as well as from his plentiful imitators. It’s a celebration not of sexuality as an abstract concept but of raw, unbridled sex in all its messy corporeality, encompassing in its admiring sweep not only aggression and bondage and penetration but also the awkward performative stutter of cruising and the sloppy indignity of post-coital bliss.  The work glories in it all equally, without reservation or judgment, and it’s this unadulterated joy, aware but unashamed, that is Tom of Finland’s greatest aesthetic achievement.

It’s a celebration not of sexuality as an abstract concept but of the raw, unbridled, messy corporeality of sex.

In its playful lack of judgment, the work also abuts a more subtle documentary tendency. What Tom of Finland shows in his meticulously detailed renderings is nothing less than a world. For all the stylized exaggeration, the absurd element of these unlikely fantasies is firmly rooted in a reality that, however unlikely, is still coherently distinctive, a world with habits and tendencies and histories, ritualized cruising and hierarchies of power and sexual availability. Like the dime novels and cinema serials of the early 20th century, these stories unfold out of each other; the sex is often preceded by the tail end of a previous story and succeeded by a hint of the next one.

What Tom of Finland documents is a commitment to a particular mode of sexual existence that is about much more than style or aesthetics. These men’s harnesses aren’t simply fashion accessories but also signifiers of a gradually emerging sexual subculture, a sexual ethos, and a sexual identity, that of the newly liberated homosexual leather man, as homosexuality slowly springs to light from its hushed mid-century subtexts. What makes this documentation even more fascinating is the fact that this newly emerging sexual world emerged directly under the influence of Laaksonen’s own work, which circulated furtively in the years when penises were still considered obscene. When those newly self-identified leather men went to have custom leather outfits made in the West Village, they took with them illustrations by Tom of Finland.

Between the ‘50s and the ‘70s, Laaksonen’s work traces the emergence of a living sexual habitus. If there’s a narrative to the retrospective, it’s the story of that subculture’s emergence. Over a period of two decades, a remarkable shift occurs in the art’s perspective, from a secretive voyeuristic gaze savoring at a slight distance the homoerotic interactions of nominally heterosexual men, to a demonstrative eye surveying with proud confidence an elaborate and distinctively homosexual ritual. It’s one thing to imagine two soldiers on leave helping each other out or a leather-clad biker accepting the drooling relief of a hitchhiker’s mouth; these are fantasies that strain against the probability of a heterosexual norm but not its possibility. But the full-body leather and elaborate multi-player bondage scenarios of the later work depict not uniforms but costumes, not fruitful accidents but ritualized performances, a language of desire stitched together from the raw materials of the most normative heterosexual virility.

Last year, L.A.’s MoCA hosted an exhibit dedicated jointly to Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer, the publisher of “physique pictorials” in whose pages Laaksonen’s work first appeared in the U.S. Tom of Finland’s cult status has been enshrined for decades, and for a certain kind of urban gay buying one of Taschen’s voluminous collections of his work has been a rite of passage for a while, but now his brand of hedonistic, multi-player ritual is being canonized by the white box establishment. Kink and fetishism are all the rage, and the art world isn’t any more immune than other worlds to the contagion of cultural trends. But beyond the immediate vogue for bondage-scented visuals and accessories, the elevation of Tom of Finland’s work fits into a critical and curatorial mood that has long dominated the intellectual relationship of institutions to sexuality in general – and homosexuality in particular – and that can be summed up as “anti-normativity.” Guided by an astoundingly stubborn misreading of Michel Foucault that was born in the 1970s, the anti-normative critical tendency insists on the inherent ethical value and the inherent revolutionary potential of “alternative” sexualities against what it perceives as an oppressive norm.

What exemplifies the “symbolic order of heterosexuality” more than a muscular man literally fucking the planet with his erection?  

By Fuck TheoryAdult_logo



Both works: Untitled, 1978, Graphite on paper, Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation. 1978 Tom of Finland Foundation

Given the weight of this critical imperative and Laaksonen’s stature in the mythopoesis of contemporary gay sexuality, we should hardly be surprised by the desire to enshrine him in the canon of queer subversions to which a generation of academics raised on institutional queer theory pay continuous lip service. Here it is in the show’s promotional material: “His emblematic, larger-than-life drawn phalluses threaten… the existing symbolic order of heterosexuality,” the booklet accompanying the show confidently announces. But… does it? Really? What, pray tell, exemplifies the “symbolic order of heterosexuality” more than a giant erect cock? The cover image for the booklet shows a man floating in space while shoving his hard-on into the Earth: is there any image more aptly representative of the patriarchal symbolic order than that of a muscular man literally fucking the planet with his huge erection?

As I’ve written before, “anti-normative” sexual practices——whether anal sex or bondage or fisting——don’t exist in opposition to normative sexual practices but in tandem with them. To unilaterally assume a resistive ethics for minoritarian practice is to willfully forget how intimately the history of those practices is rooted in the reality of normative pressures and oppressive relations of power.  As Laaksonen himself frequently admitted, the hypervirile, smooth-chested studs that populate his art were heavily inspired by his encounters with German SS soldiers while serving in the Finnish army during WWII. The thrill of the non-normative isn’t in its ability to overcome or to “threaten” the oppressive structures of the normative order, but its ability to find just enough distance from them to allow genuine danger to become an erotic charge. Tom’s elaborate leather orgies don’t transcend the visual language of facism:  they incorporate them and make them into something new. There’s nothing safe or reassuring about the ethos that organizes this emergent sexual subculture; these images and the practices they represent are thrilling, but not inherently subversive or oppositional. It’s the worshipful recognition and situational adaptation of traditional heterosexual masculinity that powers these erections, not a political desire to subvert it.

The real work that Laaksonen’s art does is that it doesn’t form a queer bulwark against the forces of normativity, which is a pretty stupid idea to begin with. Instead, it shows how powerfully the mainstream and the transgressive are rooted in and mirror each other: the oppressive normative order and the assemblages of radical alterity are constructed from the same crude materials. Tom of Finland’s work is powerful not because it depicts a desire that can safely pride itself on its resistance to normativity but because the desire it depicts grows directly out of normativity’s most appalling tendencies; not because it leavens a history of sexual oppression with sexual pride but because it oscillates relentlessly between pride and shame; not because it recovers from the iconography of fascism a happy queer communality but because it forces us over and over to confront the fact that the revolutionary leather glove of the fist fucker and the murderous leather trenchcoat of the SS guard are made of exactly the same material.

The revolutionary leather glove of the fist fucker and the murderous leather trenchcoat of the SS guard are made of exactly the same material.

Tom of Finland’s art is powerful not because it’s queer, not because it’s revolutionary, but because it’s unafraid. Its empowerment is not conceptual but emotional, in its resolute insistence on documenting a playful irony wrested from the grip of fear and a determination to glory in pleasure because, not despite, that pleasure’s proximity to a history of turmoil, violence, and hate. By positioning the work in relation to the self-importance of a critical gaze that claims to adjudicate between the playful and the political, The Pleasure of Play does itself a disservice, eliding its artist’s gleeful insistence on taking such earnest critical appraisals and giving them the finger. And then taking that finger and shoving it up someone’s asshole.  And then licking it clean with a shit-eating grin.

The Dionysian ink in which Laaksonen’s imaginary is drawn doesn’t give a fuck about facile critical distinctions any more than it cares about the current trendiness of all things kinky and fetish-y. Behind the superlative impositions of queer theory, behind the alleged anti-normativity, behind the possessive superciliousness with which the contemporary institutional art world often sucks the fun out of everything it touches, there waits a rich and historically significant body of work fashioned from unalloyed joy, leaning against a tree with a smirk, thumbs hooked in belt loops, ready to cum all over your face without even asking your name first.

By Fuck TheoryAdult_logo



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