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Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1977, graphite on paper, 17 1/2 × 21 1/4". © Tom of Finland Foundation.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1977, graphite on paper, 17 1/2 × 21 1/4". © Tom of Finland Foundation.

Tom of Finland

Artists Space Exhibitions

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1977, graphite on paper, 17 1/2 × 21 1/4". © Tom of Finland Foundation.

THE ARTISTS SPACE SHOW “Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play” presented more than half a century of the artist’s drawings, gouaches, paper dolls, and photocollages made from advertising imagery; together, they set up a narrative described as existing in “dialectical relationship” to a mainstream culture in which both pornography and homosexuality were illegal. And indeed, throughout his career as an advertising executive in Helsinki, Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) contributed to the ever-expanding lexicon of images representing straight family life in postwar Europe. But after hours, he cut up and collaged these images as studies for the drawings through which he would invent an equally coded language for a masculinity defined by smiling sadomasochistic play and eighteen-inch cocks. The collages, which the artist made from the mid-1960s until his death and are far rougher than the drawings, mix head shots of Che Guevara, Elvis, and Muhammad Ali with the 1970s haircuts and bad skin of nameless male models (who are not without charm). In the drawings that result, the players are undifferentiated: They share body types and facial features, their smiles and similarity displacing any awkwardness. They are drawn in such a way—hardly ever in color—that they become much neater, as if mechanically reproduced, or made from dust in various densities. They look designed, like porno Seurats—ready for coffee mugs.

Tom of Finland is all about inclusion; his cast of characters, from Kake to Tom’s Men, are icons of gay representation. His work also reminds me quite a lot of American art from the early-to-mid-twentieth century, art that belongs to a vaguely delimited but unmistakable tradition that includes Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell and certain Charles Demuths, as well as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood—regionalism. It’s American Gothic like you never imagined it—well, actually, I did. Eventually, of course, the outsider becomes an insider. Rockwell was never an outsider—he was always inside, inside Boy’s Life magazine and on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and then inside the Guggenheim, in the splendid retrospective curated by Robert Rosenblum. Bob Ross, Margaret Keane, and R. Crumb all used to be on the outside, but things change; the cognoscenti have them in group shows. Books I read in college, from Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture to Derrida, helped permit the absorption of the outside into correct culture, which is to say, the process of assimilation. In those years of dedifferentiation, Tom’s drawings could be found at a magazine shop near campus in a range of publications from hard-core porn to Representations.

“The Artists Space show is right not to shy away from Tom’s fascination with the Wehrmacht, or the endurance of a Nazi aesthetic in gay men’s later fetishisation of leather and boots,” Jason Farago notes in his review for The Guardian. “It’s an enduring dilemma: Back in 1974, Susan Sontag argued that ‘rightwing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface.’ Yet in Tom’s vision desire is so omnipotent, and pleasure such a moral imperative, that it has room for even the very people who say they want to exterminate you.” In Tom’s own words, “The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!” And it’s true: The uniforms are recycled every year on the runways. When I came back from Paris as a teenager, I recall buying Vogue Paris at the airport and seeing models marching under the Arc de Triomphe in huge leather trench coats—Claude Montana’s storm-trooper collection. Hot.

Fetishism and consumerism are embedded in the bodies of fantasy, from the dark biomechanical aliens of H. R. Geiger to the bulging, steroidal heroes of Boris Vallejo. Both these artists have a strong and consistent aesthetic, which is easily transferred to the world of merchandising. Tom of Finland also has an aesthetic, and he has an action figure, too, advertised as anatomically correct. As his work grows more recent it becomes increasingly defined. Airless. That’s the fetish: asphyxiation.

“I believe in fact that attempts to bring political protest together with ‘popular music’—that is, entertainment music—are . . . doomed from the start,” Theodor Adorno once said. “And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable, I find that really it is this song that is in fact unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption qualities out of it.” The elements of Tom’s work that have been most celebrated since his death—its aesthetic precision, its cheery inclusiveness, its “brandable” consistency—are often the most lauded as liberating and populist. It is this reception that encourages the sort of broad public amusement that Adorno finds unbearable. The mass marketing of Tom’s images via clothing lines, bedsheets, toys, and relentlessly upbeat postage stamps somehow creates a tyranny of “desire.” I hate desire. It’s always about belittling people while “liberating” them. The apparent simplicity of Tom’s trajectory, from transgressive outsider to the Hello Kitty of gay culture, when presented as purely celebratory, even “inclusive,” is troubling. As a Dutch leather-shop owner once said, “These works are not conversation pieces, they’re masturbation pieces.”

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Correction, October 5, 2015: In the print edition of this article, three sentences in the third paragraph should have been attributed to Jason Farago, “Tom of Finland: the Pleasure of Play review—definitely not the marrying kind,” The Guardian, June 26, 2015. Artforum sincerely regrets the error.