TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1976, Graphite on paper, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

The pneumatic pecs. The bubble butts. The willowy waistlines and accomplished abs. The dicks that could double as fire hoses. Tom of Finland’s iconic drawings of idealized gay sexuality are, as a body of work, a buffet of fantastically rendered flesh. But what continues to make Tom’s men so incredibly subversive is a quality far less salacious than those by which they are best known: their smiles. Years before gay liberation was conceivable and a half-century before society would see quantifiable proof of its fruits, Tom of Finland (birth name: Touko Laaksonen) was depicting hardcore, all-male sex, often set in public spaces, and he was doing it with a positive sensibility. Tom’s men were out, they weren’t pathologized, and they were shameless in a time when it seemed impossible for most gay men to be that way.

“I think the liberated smile that his characters have is still progressive,” says Stefan Kalmár, the curator of Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play, a comprehensive exhibit of Laaksonen’s work that opens in June at New York’s Artists Space (where Kalmár is also executive director). “It’s not like party-and-play, hidden-hotel-rooms business. This is out in the open and therefore still a valuable discussion today about sexuality that’s not about gay marriage.”


TOM OF FINLAND © Tom of Finland Foundation

Laaksonen’s work retains its radical function; it challenges the current belief held by many gays that in order to secure equal rights, we must downplay the sex in our sexuality and present ourselves as well behaved and “normal” (whatever that means). Tom of Finland spent his career contradicting the prevailing narratives of neutered and effeminate gay life. Of his subjects, Laaksonen said, “I began to exaggerate their maleness on purpose to point out that all gays don’t necessarily need to be just ‘those damn queers,’ that they could be as handsome, strong, and masculine as any other men.”

The Pleasure of Play will include more than 180 drawings, often executed in graphite, and 600 photo collages. The work spans Laaksonen’s childhood growing up in Kaarina, Finland, as the son of schoolteachers to his 1957 entry into the American market via bodybuilding magazines, all the way to the straightforwardly pornographic work that he did up until his death from emphysema in 1991. Kalmár says the exhibition is focused on “the more perverted stuff,” so expect drawings of orgies, leather play, jailhouse scenarios, depictions of sexual versatility, and even some men fucking in Nazi uniforms, which was inspired by the German soldiers who occupied Finland in World War II. “It’s hardcore, in a way,” says Kalmár. “Even now we think, ‘Can we even show this?’ ”

Kalmár peppers his discussion of Laaksonen’s work with unearthed facts about the artist’s life, such as his remaining closeted to his family until death and that he wasn’t particularly sexually active. “I think he was more of a looker,” says Kalmár. In that light, Tom of Finland’s body of work represents an uncommonly literal expression of sexuality. It is a tangible document of time spent worshipping the male form, time that, for so many of us, is just ejaculated away.

Laaksonen’s work was once regarded as utilitarian jerk-off material for men who didn’t have access to gay pornography. But then the porn industry exploded and body-modification technology became so advanced that Tom of Finland’s “fantasy drawings” became more or less a reality. Time may have diminished the intended usefulness of Laaksonen’s work, but it has only affirmed its status as art. In 2015, Tom of Finland is simultaneously nostalgic, prescient, and aspirational. Laaksonen, who received his artistic nom de plume from the editor of Physique Pictorial in 1957, spent his career drawing utopian images of gay sexuality, waiting for the world to catch up, and watching it happen in increments. Those smiles on his men are as blissful as they are knowing.


Tom of Finland

LOS ANGELES, at David Kordansky Gallery
17th January – 7th March, 2015

The cover boys on Tom of Finland catalogues solicited visitors from outside the exhibition Early Work 1944-1972, offering something of a false promise. From these catalogues, Tom’s 1980s illustrations cruise in all of their pictorial glory—fully realized fantasy Adonises confronting the viewer with the eventual telos of the artist’s physique renderings: chiseled studs in leather biker caps, with groins swelling in denim baskets and buoyant bottoms bouncing.

The show’s 15 early works on paper—most exhibited for the first time—serve as a profoundly dynamic historiography of postwar gay sensibilities. Their preening, posing figures reflect 30 very important years of gay life, spanning from the underground lifestyle of the 1940s to the countercultural gay liberation movement that Tom’s musclemen most often represent. Tom (born Touko Laaksonen) began publishing his drawings in periodicals like Physique Pictorial in the late 1950s, eventually becoming the best-known creator of homoerotic and fetish art in the world.

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), T.V.-Repair (Panel 1 of 21)), 1972, pen, ink, gouache and cut-and-pasted photo on paper,  each 17¼ by 14¼ inches, #88.77, © 1972 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), T.V.-Repair (Panel 1 of 21), 1972, pen, ink, gouache and cut-and-pasted photo on paper, each 17¼ by 14¼ inches, © 1972 Tom of Finland Foundation

The show’s pièce de résistance was the 21-panel strip T.V.-Repair(1972), depicting one bored stroker’s industrious summoning of a “Tom’s T.V.” repairman (from the phonebook) and the dexterous angles at which this tradesman goes to dutifully render his services. Detailed in grayscale gouache and ink, the panels pop with an advertiser’s flair; in fact, the sequence was created in the final year of Tom’s employ in advertising, before he committed to his artistic work full-time. Tom places posters of his own illustrations around the john’s domestic interior, a playful self-endorsement and a masterstroke of world creation. Yet in this macho kama sutra, there’s a disarming sensitivity in the artist’s representations of consent, in the gestures and mechanics of homosexual intercourse.

On an adjacent wall, the earliest of Tom’s works evinced a startlingly divergent set of gay signifiers from this familiar iconography. Rendered in 1944, these “preparatory sketches” depict homosexual figures with stylings representative of the era—coiffed hair, berets and ascots collide with the artist’s first envisionings of virile erections. One exposed subject is far more ephebe than muscleman. He smiles sweetly as a boyish trick works him with both hands. Another figure is positively effeminate; with collar upturned, he throws us a camp glance, arms planted defiantly on both hips, while a compatriot flicks his tongue across his protruding phallus.

In the work of the 1960s, Tom develops the impeccable graphite control that defines his best-known drawings. He was a master draftsman. That skill transforms isolated body parts into orgiastic offerings at a carnal smorgasbord. Yet even the fetishism offered in these 1960s drawings—by way of riding boots, military garb and circus singlets—is far more sweet or cordial than the impenetrable sheen of the later Tom of Finland musclemen. The popularity of those later poster boys was achieved through a pitch-perfect blend of draftsmanship and advertising aesthetics; their flamboyant masculinity is total, fetishistic, commercial. Here, however, boys romp and play, and Tom finds his way through a furtive period of gay codification into a permissive culture receptive to his fantasias.

By Bradford NordeenArt_in_America