“Men of the forest of Finland is the theme of a new series of drawings being prepared by ‘Tom’ an artist who lives in Finland and draws from life…” reads the first page of the of the spring 1957 issue of Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, a so-called athletic magazine that circulated for 30 years. It was Tom of Finland’s American debut, and this line, alongside the illustrations it accompanies, seem to pre-emptively lay out the complexity of Touko Laaksonen’s (b. 1920, Kaarina, d. 1991, Helsinki) own persona. “Tom” is a rare figure (if not the only one) whose own biography and identity was almost completely eclipsed by his own desire. A search, whether by his birth or adopted name, turns up only a handful of images of him—the number of bright, smiling faces of young men seem to overwhelm. More commonly remembered in an idealized form, Tom’s own face is erased in our memory in favor of his lovers, both real and imagined.
When approaching The Pleasure of Play at Artists Space, the most comprehensive exhibition of Tom of Finland’s works to date, it’s curious to think of his drawings as being “from life.” They appear far from it; if anything, they’re an avoidance, or an outlet to escape his own lived experience. Tom was born in rural Finland and drafted into the Finnish army during World War II as teenager, before moving to Helsinki to study and eventually work for an international advertising agency. All the while, Tom obsessively portrayed an idealized male form, and brought forth a depiction of pleasure that at the time could not have been enacted without fear. Tom’s figures, however, even in his earliest drawings dating from the 1940s, are ecstatic, effusive, and ejaculating. It’s almost difficult to see them as the result of an “underground”, since the feeling they give off is a pronounced positivity, or even optimism. A thoroughly forward-looking attitude pervades them, which pushes for a world that will allow them to exist outside the channels in which they were made and distributed.
In retrospect, perhaps it’s this very attitude that is the most compelling and most abrasive aspect of the work. Tom allowed himself to become a product, selling cheap prints, comics and calendars, while simultaneously being embraced by a younger set of “fine” artists. After his first gallery exhibition in San Francisco, he befriended Robert Mapplethorpe, who helped him get his first major New York gallery exhibition.
It would be artists who would help guide his Foundation, with supporters including the late Mike Kelley, Richard Hawkins and Raymond Pettibon, along with Durk Dehner, Tom of Finland Foundation’s president, who was often depicted in Tom’s drawings.
Bringing together almost 200 drawings, as well as collages and collateral material, the Artists Space exhibition tries to demonstrate exactly this: the complexity of a figure who existed equally as an icon and site of inquiry. This dual role comes across loud and clear in the 1976 drawing Fuck the World, coyly (in the loosest sense of the word) depicting a nude man embracing the world as he penetrates it, all the while maintaining a gleeful and knowing grin.
It’s this playfulness that is at the heart of Tom’s work, as the muscled physique of his figures drew from both illicit materials as well as mainstream depictions of male masculinity. By conflating the two under the umbrella of a then radical form of love, he negated and upended this time-honored ideal. Tom called masculinity on its bluff, and in turn worked to expose the incredibly fragile line between normative and non-normative behaviors.
By Alex Philip Fitzgerald for Mousse