Artists Space is housing the first ever-complete display of the work by Tom of Finland in a new show titled “The Pleasure of Play”. Starting June 13, 2015, the show will include more than 140 drawings, rarely seen gouaches from the 1940s, over 600 pages of collages, as well as his very personal early childhood drawings. It has taken until now, nearly 25 years after his death, to understand and acknowledge the wide-reaching artistic importance and cultural impact of his work.
Touko Laaksonen, best known by his alter ego name Tom of Finland, was born May 8 1920 and died November 7 1991. He is the Finnish artist whose stylized homoerotic fetish art hugely influenced the late twentieth century gay culture.
He studied in Turku before in 1939, at the age of 19, moving to Helsinki to study advertising. As a hobby the artist started drawing erotic pictures that were based on imagery of masculine laborers that he had seen growing up. At first he kept all these hidden before then destroying all evidence of them completely: “at least by the time I went to serve the army,” he once said. He served as an anti-aircraft officer, holding the rank of second lieutenant. He later attributed his fetishistic interest in uniformed men to encounters with men in army uniform.
After serving his time in the Finnish Army in its fight against the Soviet invasion, he stayed in Helsinki, studying classical piano at the renowned Sibelius Academy. While at the Academy, Tom of Finland worked as a freelance graphic designer, later becoming senior art director at the Helsinki office of the global advertising agency McCann Erickson.
From the 1920s to the 1990s, Tom of Finland’s biography parallels pivotal moments of 20th century gay history. He covers the disasters, the turmoil and the radical changes that took place during this time. His work stands alongside all these events and the often-oppressive culture that surrounded him. Tom of Finland’s work is not only a fearless portrait of sexuality spanning more than five decades, but also a portrait of the relationship that is at play between culture and sub-culture.
Laaksonen’s style and content in the late 1950s and early 1960s was partly influenced by the U.S. censorship codes that restricted depiction of “overt homosexual acts.” He started rendering private commissions so more explicit work was produced but remained unpublished. In 1962, the case of MANual Enterprises v. Day the United States Supreme Court ruled that nude male photographs were not obscene, and the artist’s work started to once again be published in print for anyone to view.
Many of the cutouts used in the artists work are taken from global print campaigns, he seems to use his art as a vehicle to study and take apart the representations of maleness and gender-assigned attributes in mainstream media. He then fuses them with cutouts from gay periodicals. His work was separated into binders and most of the collages were sorted by theme: leather jackets, motorcycles, uniforms, beards, hairdos and so forth. On rare occasions he also drew directly onto these cutouts, to either amplify or reduce the existing attributes.
One common thread in Tom of Finland’s drawings is his faces. They all have a likeness with bold, grinning smiles, while all in the act of sexual play. They present a fearless vision of sexuality pointing towards the culture that constructed the relationship between sexuality and fear in the first place.