S.R. Sharp (left) and Durk Dehner at the Tom of Finland Foundation | Photography by François Dischinger. Produced by Michael Reynolds.
From Michelangelo to Rauschenberg, gay artists can be found at any major museum. Meanwhile, Tom of Finland’s “dirty drawings” of bulging bikers, lumberjacks, and leathermen seemed forever confined to the back rooms of gay bars — not the hallowed halls of white-walled galleries. But a new window display at Colette Gallery on one of Paris’s most fashionable streets is aiming to elevate the work from hardcore to haute. The new exhibition of Henzel Studio’s luxury handmade rugs — which will also feature designs by Nan Goldin and Richard Prince — is the result of the tireless efforts of the Tom of Finland Foundation to promote the artist’s legacy.
But the trend doesn’t stop with pricey tapestries. With gallery exhibitions, linens, a line of athletic apparel, and a new biopic about the artist in the works, we’re experiencing a full-blown Tom of Finland renaissance.
“We just received a beautiful letter from a 21-year-old Polish guy telling us how he discovered Tom in the last year, and how good it makes him feel,” says Durk Dehner, president of the Tom of Finland Foundation. “And we could have gotten that letter in 1976 or 2006. It’s what made me work with Tom to start this: listening to young guys who said his work gave them a positive identity — that they weren’t the only gays in the village.”
Dehner always knew the work of Tom of Finland (a.k.a. Touko Laaksonen) was special. Inspired by one of the artist’s erotic drawings he saw at the Spike, a New York City fetish bar, in the ’70s, he wrote Tom a fan letter. They became friends, and Dehner helped create the foundation in 1984 in his Los Angeles home, where Tom lived for his last decade. Originally intended to preserve the work of the artist, who died in 1991 at the age of 71, the organization soon expanded to “offer a safe haven for all erotic art in response to rampant discrimination against art that portrayed sexual behavior or generated a sexual response.”
With the motto “Let’s keep it fun,” Dehner threw parties in the ’80s and ’90s to celebrate Tom’s images, but interest began to wane. Then, in 2006, the Judith Rothschild Foundation donated five works to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Tom of Finland is one of the five most influential artists of the 20th century,” Harvey S. Shipley Miller, a Rothschild Foundation trustee, said at the time. “As an artist, he was superb. As an influence, he was transcendent.”
Last year, the first American museum exhibition devoted to the work of Tom of Finland and photographer Bob Mizer, both pioneers of gay art, was mounted at MOCA in Los Angeles. That will be followed by the largest exhibition of Tom’s work at New York’s Artists Space in June.
However, all the upscale collaborations doesn’t mean the foundation has forgotten its raunchier roots. It recently created a line of “pleasure tools,” including a limited-edition dildo art object (retailing for $500). A sculptor based it on a drawing of Tom’s character (and alter ego) Kake’s cock, and the material looks like graphite. “It’s a beautiful cock,” says Dehner. “When we were creating it, we wanted it to be a sculpture.”
Not that Tom of Finland is a brand, per se. “We don’t see it that way, with those definitions,” says S.R. Sharp, the vice president of the foundation, who also helms an artist residency program. “It’s really about a man and his legacy united with the guy who created it. Tom of Finland was a real person, with real hands, who actually created great artwork.”
“If someone can’t afford a $30,000 drawing, they can maybe afford a $20 cock ring,” Dehner says. “It’s just as valid that they have Tom in their life in their own way. We think of them all as collectors.”