This exhibition surveys the artist’s
formative years across fifteen works, each selected in close collaboration
with the Los Angeles-based Tom of Finland Foundation. These graphite
drawings, gouaches, and inked storyboards–the majority of which
have never been shown before–broadly trace the evolution of Tom’s
exquisite draftsmanship and compositions from his earliest extant erotic
works, executed just after serving in the Finnish Army during WWII,
through to a complete comic produced in 1972, the year before Tom both
earned his first solo exhibition, and retired from his advertising career
to devote himself full-time to his art.
Among the earliest works featured is a group of rare
sketches from 1944 depicting clothed couples enjoying sensual trysts.
The delicate fashion-illustrational style and the coifed hairstyles
reflect the era, but the exposed and exaggerated genitalia, a burgeoning
pre-steroid musculature, and most significantly, expressions of pride
and playfulness signal Tom’s pioneering approach to sexuality.
At the time, homosexuality was unequivocally taboo, if not illegal,
and the dominant image of gay men was that of weakness, sickness, and
effeteness. In a masterful 1947 gouache on view, Tom both flouts and
acknowledges these prejudices with the depiction of a commanding, strong-jawed
figure discreetly pleasuring his companion. The picture also displays
an early fetish for leather and military garb, trappings Tom would adopt
throughout his world as symbols of power and masculinity.
A selection of finished drawings from 1957 to 1970
further redefines archetypes. Beginning with Bob Mizer’s LA-based
beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial, Tom began publishing
his pictures as multi-image stories in proto-zine periodicals. To populate
this expanding universe, he (predating the appropriations of punk) radically
coopted working class, macho, and heterosexual identities, in particular
the bikers, sailors, cowboys, and circus performers on view. Seen here
idyllically cavorting, these Adonises emulate the aspiring freedoms
of the decade. Each composition is charged as much with moments of looking
as touching, mirroring the gaze of the viewer, and suggesting a heightened
openness to the dynamics of visibility.
The exhibition’s chronology culminates in a 1972
multi-panel comic featuring Kake, Tom’s recurring alter ego superhero
and the original gay leatherman clone, seducing a “Tom’s
TV” repairman during a house call. Published as Kake Vol.
11 TV Repair, one of 26 stories the artist released from 1968 to
1986, this sequence of 20 images (plus cover) comprise the final photo-ready
artwork for press production. Accordingly, Tom supplants his graphite
tonal gradients with the graphic, commercial art punch of pen and gouache,
and the character of Kake, an easygoing if horny everyman, takes on
a Sunday morning regularity. Similarly, the ecstasy of TV Repair
is set within a conventional house with framed artwork on its walls.
The artworks are photo-collaged reproductions of Tom’s own “dirty
drawings”, and what is suggestively invoked is a world in which
the permissiveness of Tom of Finland is a part of every living room.
An accompanying, fully illustrated catalogue, designed
by Brian Roettinger and featuring an essay by Kevin McGarry, will be
|TOM OF FINLAND, untitled, 1972, ink, gouache, and cut-and-pasted photo on paper. From the series “TV Repair,” 1972. © 1972 Tom of Finland Foundation
In 1956, Finnish draftsman Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) submitted a drawing of two strapping lumberjacks to a popular American beefcake magazine, Physique Pictorial. The drawing was accepted as a cover, attributed to Tom of Finland—an Anglicized approximation of Touko with the artist’s geographic origin thrown in for tempered exoticism. A contrast between traditional aesthetics and raunchy subject matter in the lumberjacks drawing would characterize his oeuvre for decades. The thirteen drawings, one gouache, and one multipanel narrative on view in this frisky exhibition span the years of 1944 to 1972 and illustrate that by the late seventies Laaksonen’s suggestiveness had given way to unabashed homoeroticism. Saturated by Western heroic representation that harkens to the Vatican Laocoön sculpture, these works shun that era’s prevailing stereotype of gay effeminacy, instead championing prodigiously vigorous homosexuals pleasuring one another, their expressions glib, their gaze triumphant.
Those familiar with Laaksonen’s larger body of work will probably notice that the 1972 TV Repair series, which shows the artist’s alter ego—all hard muscled and leather clad—seducing a repairman, is a pendant to his 1946 ink-and-gouache-on-paper series Bob’s Tale, Pt. 1. In the latter, two large and assertive male visitors seduce Bob, who is also modeled after Laaksonen. Both seductions feature his familiar erotic trope—the subject first surprised, then compliant, later ecstatic—but with one significant shift: After twenty-odd years of erotic drawings, the artist’s alter ego finally graduated from seduced to seducer, from Touko to Tom. The following year, 1973, Tom of Finland, an advertising designer by day, piano player by night, whose drawings began as a furtive labor of love, launched his official art career with his first art show in Hamburg.
— Julia Friedman, Artforum
|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 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.
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.
— Bradford Nordeen, Art in America
January 17, 2015 - March 7, 2015
5130 West Edgewood Place, Los Angeles, California 90019 ·
David Kordansky Gallery