Los Angeles

Cover of Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, vol. 16, no. 4 (April 1968), featuring a 1962 drawing by Tom of Finland.

Cover of Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, vol. 16, no. 4 (April 1968), featuring a 1962 drawing by Tom of Finland.

Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland

MOCA Pacific Design Center

Cover of Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, vol. 16, no. 4 (April 1968), featuring a 1962 drawing by Tom of Finland.

In Victorian times, the site of gay pleasure, sensuality, and communality was the ol’ swimming hole, celebrated by artists like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, Thomas Eakins and Henry Scott Tuke. Photographer and publisher Bob Mizer and illustrator Touko Laaksonen (“Tom of Finland”) relocated the Victorian Eden to the filling stations, pools, bars, gyms, and barracks of a postwar landscape remarkably like Los Angeles, a sunbaked utopia where every man’s a dreamboat and he’s bursting out of his jeans to get at you. In recent years, Mizer’s and Laaksonen’s respective foundations (both artists died in the early 1990s) have attempted to insert their work into a high-art context; the MoCA Pacific Design Center show was only the latest—and perhaps most prominent—manifestation of this ambition.

The exhibition tamed a staggering proliferation into two large galleries and an anteroom, which was packed with ephemera and spreads from Mizer’s long-running “fitness magazine,” Physique Pictorial, suggesting the connections between the artists: Mizer promoted Laaksonen’s work in his publication and even gave him his catchy new name, yet eventually lost him when Tom realized he could do better on his own. The Tom room was painted the smudgy black that, in the 1970s, coated the walls of every leather bar from here to Helsinki. Tom’s painstaking graphite renderings of bikers, sailors, patrolmen, hitchhikers, and beach boys may look dumb in reproduction, but seeing the originals produces a strong respect for his nimble, witty pleasure creation. The curators, Bennett Simpson of LA MoCA and artist Richard Hawkins, drew no curtains over Tom of Finland’s unabashedly sexual work: It is raw and vigorous, but the comic-book-y slide of one drawing into another produces a slo-mo sense of forward direction. A lot of care went into this show: Simpson and Hawkins reunited story panels that had been separated years ago. But what of the Nazi regalia and the abruptly Fascistic posturing in some of the work? It appeared, bunched on one wall in a “never apologize, never explain” sort of way, but by and large, the agonistic moments served to highlight the ecstatic surfaces of this strange artist’s hand (in glove).

Across the threshold, the walls of the Mizer room, painted a Hollywood silver, largely displayed what the photographer called his “catalogue boards,” dozens of small prints mounted on heavy stock. These layouts were reduced to grids of numbered thumbnails and reproduced in Physique Pictorial, inviting subscribers to order larger prints (and perhaps racier versions) of their favorite models: a naked mechanic repairing his motorcycle, a shirtless rancher lowering his chinos. The fixative has weakened over time, or perhaps visitors to Mizer’s studio filched favorite prints now and again, so some of the catalogue boards boast gaps haunted by stains of crumbling rubber cement. In the silver MoCA space, the collages suggested at least a beefcake kinship to Warhol’s Factory servings of series in silver, like the forty-two Liz Taylors in his National Velvet, 1963, while Mizer’s invention of an all-gay, tumbleweed-strewn Old West of denim and fantasy is not so distant from the mise-en-scène of Lonesome Cowboys (1967–68). Mizer’s productivity (his estate is said to own as many as a million negatives) has its own magical force. It is almost as if he thought he could answer, through sheer numbers, the age-old questions of realism, especially the one that asks, How are male bodies to be presented to the viewer?

In Paris in 1853, Courbet unveiled The Wrestlers, his depiction of working-class, stripped-for-action muscle hunks competing for the favor of the pastel Salon bourgeoisie. A century later, Mizer unveiled ten thousand of their grandsons and encased them in trunks of sheer mesh or posing straps that seem ever ready to slide away from the sweaty male bodies they tag. While Tom of Finland’s labor-intensive drawings may seem more legitimate as “fine art,” the exhibition convinced me that Mizer’s rugged, cheerful stud farm might prove the more substantial achievement in years to come. The mind boggles, even as the body trembles and spasms.

Kevin Killian