Extensive Tom of Finland Art Exhibit in NYC Through August 23

NEW YORK CITY—To fans of gay adult content, the name Touko Laaksonen may not be overly familiar—but just about everyone is familiar with his alter ego, Tom of Finland, and now more than six decades of Laaksonen's drawings, collages and paintings are available for all to see in two NYC locations.

The exhibitor is Artists Space, and nearly 200 of Laaksonen's drawings can be found at 38 Greene St. in SoHo, with other materials—mainly collages—to be found at Artists Space's other location, 55 Walker St. in TriBeCa.

Touko Laaksonen was born in 1920 in Kaarina, Finland, and after serving in the Finnish Army to repel the 1939 Soviet invasion of his country—a conflict that kept him in military service through the end of WWII—Laaksonen put to good use the correspondence course on advertising he'd taken at age 19 and became a freelance graphic designer, even while studying classical piano at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy.

Eventually, Laaksonen parlayed his graphic design skills to become the senior art director at famous ad agency McCann Erickson's Helsinki office, a job he held for 17 years until his retirement in 1973.

But what his bosses at McCann Erickson didn't know was that Laaksonen had a secret life as Tom of Finland, regularly contributing artwork to such magazines as Physique Pictorial and other gay publications, beginning in 1950. However, once Laaksonen left McCann Erickson, he supported himself entirely through his artwork, which included publishing gay comic books and selling original art pieces as he traveled around Europe, hitting all the major capital cities. He and a friend formed the Tom of Finland Company in 1979, and in 1984, the Tom of Finland Foundation, whose mission has been to collect and exhibit homoerotic artwork.

Laaksonen was a student of the human figure, and the collection of his work includes thousands of images of men cut from mainstream magazine illustrations and advertisements, as well as from early gay magazines.

"Working from 1956 to 1973 as senior art director at one of the first global advertising agencies, it is likely that Tom of Finland had access to a range of global mainstream publications as well as illegally published early gay magazines—both from which he would meticulously cut out details and compose on single pages to later use as studies, or as he called them, reference pages," the exhibition description on the Artists Space website reads. "It is telling that many of these cutouts are taken from global print campaigns; Tom of Finland seemingly studying and taking apart the representations of maleness and gender-assigned attributes in mainstream media, and fusing them with cutouts from gay periodicals. Originally separated into binders, the majority of these collages were sorted by distinct taxonomies: leather jackets, motorcycles, uniforms, beards, hairdos and so forth. On rare occasions he also drew directly onto these cutouts, to either amplify or reduce the existing attributes."

Much of Laaksonen's artwork is very hardcore, and one of the drawings in the exhibition depicts a strapping, leather-clad man having sex with the planet Earth—a far cry from his mainstream persona. Other Tom of Finland art from the exhibit can be seen here.

"He was a Don Draper," said Artists Space executive director and curator Stefan Kalmár. "In the daytime he projected the suburban ideal of the happy family, while at night he was doing the opposite."

Indeed; Laaksonen's artwork was so groundbreaking in so many ways that the Finnish government last year issued a set of Tom of Finland postage stamps. Laaksonen died in 1991.

The exhibit will remain open through Aug. 23 at Artists Space.