Tom of Finland

The Pleasure of Play

Tom of Finland The Pleasure of Play | Events Calendar
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1975, Gouache on paper, 10.5 x 8.5 inches. Courtesy Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles

Tribeca / Downtown

Opening from

On View

Artists Space | 55 Walker Street

Artists Space is to present the most comprehensive Tom of Finland survey exhibition to date, including more than 180 drawings, gouaches from the 1940s, over 300 pages of collages, as well as early childhood works.

Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland (1920, Kaarina – 1991, Helsinki), is considered to be the most iconic gay artist of the 20th century. In spite of his global status, his work, however, has only been very infrequently presented, examined or discussed within institutional and academic contexts.

Tom of Finland's biography parallels pivotal moments of 20th century (gay) history, bearing witness to the disasters, the turmoil and the radical changes that took place during his lifetime. Indeed, his work stands in dialectical relationship to these events and the often oppressive culture that surrounded him. Starting from an early age, Tom played with the iconographic conventions upon which both the representation and the very conception of masculinity are based. His emblematic, larger-than-life drawn phalluses not only threaten the existing symbolic order of heterosexuality, but also reorganize the principles by which (homo)sexual desires are structured. This fearless portrait of sexuality can also be read as a portrait of the sadomasochistic relationship that is at play between culture and subculture itself, an aspect that is as much present in his work, as it runs through gay culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as through his own biography.

A child of teachers, Tom grew up in rural Finland. At age 19 he enrolled in a distance learning advertising course. Soon drafted, he joined the Finnish Army in its fight against the Soviet invasion. After the war he stayed in Helsinki studying classical piano at the renowned Sibelius Academy. While at the Academy, he worked as freelance graphic designer, later becoming senior art director at the Helsinki branch of the global ad agency McCann Erickson. In 1973, after 17 years with the firm, he quit to be able to focus entirely on his own work.

While living life as an adman in Helsinki, his global career as gay icon was jumpstarted in 1950's Los Angeles through his ongoing contributions to Bob Mizer's Physique Pictorial. Later Tom became friends with Robert Mapplethorpe, who in 1980 helped him to get his first major gallery exhibition in New York. From the 1970s onwards Tom visited the US frequently and while he never permanently resided in the US, in the last decade of his life he spent equal time between Helsinki and Los Angeles; it could be argued that there was a distinct Finnish Tom as much as there was a real LA Tom, but there was always only one Tom of Finland.

Because of Tom of Finland's compound status as artist and pop icon, his work has for many years been admired by artists including the late Mike Kelley, who in 1988 invited him to speak at CalArts; Raymond Pettibon, who became a lifetime supporter of the Tom of Finland Foundation, as well as Richard Hawkins, who continues to work with the Foundation today.