Does Tom of Finland matter—art-historically speaking?
Tom is the Norman Rockwell of hand-drawn gay erotica. Lately he has commanded the attention of open-minded museums collecting 20th-century drawings. Both LACMA and the Museum of Modern Art have acquired Tom’s work, and MOCA is showcasing it in “Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland,” at the Pacific Design Center. The show is fun and has a certain historical resonance. MOCA is at pains to invest Tom (and physique magazine photographer Bob Mizer) with art-historic gravitas. I’m not sure that fits Tom any more than it does square, straight Norman.
The exhibition makes several provocative claims. One is that Tom of Finland “invented” the leatherman meme. He took the masculine stereotypes most likely to bully or bash and recast them as sex-loving boytoys.
Were there really no leathermen before Tom? If so, then I guess everyone from Catherine Opie to South Park owes him one. But you have to wonder how well this underground history is documented. (In general, almost anytime someone claims that so-and-so invented something, it turns out that someone else you never heard of did it earlier.) In any case, Tom probably shouldn’t be politicized too far. He once said, ”In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself.”
Photographer Bob Mizer was the first to publish Tom’s drawings, in his magazine Physique Pictorial. Mizer balked at Tom’s Finnish name (Touko Laaksonen), proposing “Tom of Finland.” The name’s construction echoed that of Mizer’s contemporary “Bruce of Los Angeles.” That was the work name of Bruce Bellas, a Nebraska chemistry teacher whose Breaking Bad turn was to move to L.A. and found a gay porn empire. In 1956 Bruce launched his own magazine, The Male Figure.
Both Mizer and Bruce of Los Angeles have been discovered by the photography market, and MOCA is showing two just-acquired Mizer catalog boards. A gallery text links Mizer’s photo grids to those of pop and minimalism. That’s a stretch for a guy who who gave his sci-fi gladiator porn sagas such titles as “Tijuana Bandit Time Machine.”
The exhibition is mainly about Tom, however, and the case for his relevance. The MOCA website says that Tom of Finland’s beefcake drawings have inspired “generations of artists, both gay and straight, among them, Kenneth Anger, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, David Hockney, G.B. Jones, Mike Kelley, Robert Mapplethorpe, Henrik Olesen, Jack Pierson, John Waters, and Andy Warhol.” The exhibition is co-curated by an artist, Richard Hawkins, along with MOCA’s Bennett Simpson.
The campy naiveté of 1960s male nude photography, such as Mizer’s, has become a point of reference for some contemporary photographers. But Tom is a special case. His meticulously finished, self-taught draughtsmanship is not in the toolkit of today’s post-studio M.F.A.’s. If nothing else, that may have limited his direct influence.
Though Tom’s line is precise, he’s no realist. His mesomorphs with weirdly sweet faces are proportioned like Ken dolls would be, were Ken dolls designed like Barbie dolls are. The anatomical distortions can be disturbing in ways that suggest the works of Lisa Yuskavage or John Currin.
The Mike Kelley connection is particularly worth exploring. Kelley collected Tom’s work and arranged for him to give a lecture at CalArts in 1985. “Tom of Finland has been an incredible inspiration to my work and within the gay community as well,” Kelley said at the time. That was long before museums decided they wanted to be in the Tom of Finland business. (The CalArts talk is online here.)
Kelley was likewise intrigued with Sex to Sexty, a straight comic book of smutty humor that rivaled Tom for its transgressiveness. In his 1989 essay “Foul Perfection: Thoughts on Caricature,” Kelley links caricature, pornography, and the grotesque to abstraction. From that perspective maybe Tom isn’t a phenomenon outside of art history after all.
John Waters has also written on Tom of Finland, but I prefer to think of Waters as the anti-Tom of Finland. Is not Divine the complete, through-the-looking-glass inversion of the Tom boys? — the authentic sexual/body image outlaw, in the Tom of Finland universe, this universe, or any other?