New York’s Artists Space is going deep on master of gay erotica Tom of Finland.
The Finnish artist is known for his raunchy drawings of hypermuscular, dramatically endowed, leather-clad gay men. Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play opens this Saturday and includes eye-popping depictions of group sex and BDSM, along with an extensive presentation of collages of the artist’s source material.
The show aims to highlight the artist’s dual artistic identity, being that he was employed as as senior art director at the Helsinki office of the global ad firm McCann Erickson—the ones behind the legendary “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial.
“He was a Don Draper,” Artists Space executive director and curator Stefan Kalmár said in a phone interview. “In the daytime he projected the suburban ideal of the happy family, while at night he was doing the opposite.”
Some of the drawings show men in S&M dungeons; one shows a man jerking off a guy with a penis that measures about a foot long, while another presents a giant, well-endowed man in space, his erect penis entering the Earth.
The artist, born Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), got his start with a drawing of a strapping lumberjack that was published as the cover of the spring 1957 issue of Physique Pictorial magazine. He kept his day job, though, for nearly 20 years after that debut.
Kalmár says it’s the artist’s biggest show to date, with upwards of 180 drawings and more than 300 collages of source material, along with paper dolls from the artist’s childhood and gouaches from the 1940s, when he was in his twenties.
The collages have never been shown in such quantity, according to Kalmár. They combine images, often thematically, that the artist clipped from both mainstream and subculture magazines. One shows several pairs of men working out together, juxtaposed with pairs and trios of men in S&M scenarios.
The show may represent the most highbrow venue yet for a Tom of Finland exhibition; a 2014 show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center seemed like a breakthrough for the artist, whose works have often been reduced to camp status.
The artist was also honored last year by a postal stamp in his native country.
While Artists Space is perhaps best known for its shows of contemporary artists like Hito Steyerl and Sam Pulitzer, though, Kalmár stresses that the show is not entirely out of character. He points out that Artists Space regularly gives shows to relatively marginalized historical artists, like Zilia Sánchez in 2013 and Charlotte Posenenske in 2010 (see Hito Steyerl’s Artists Space Show and Sam Pulitzer’s Maze).
Kalmár doesn’t shy away from addressing the “delicate” issue of Tom of Finland’s propensity to include Nazi regalia in some of his images. “As we read them, those works are about authority. He did drawings of people in Nazi uniforms that he drew a dick on,” he says. “He overrides those uniforms and their authority by ironizing them or by making a caricature of them.”
“But then,” Kalmár added, “there’s the more complicated issue of the fetish of the uniform. Why in certain circles of gay subculture are people dressing up as cops?”
Despite the sensitive subject matter, an impressive cast of artists is supporting the show, including Robert Gober and Donald Moffett, Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Cindy Sherman, and Danh Vō; other supporters include collectors Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons, as well as New York’s Greene Naftali Gallery.