At 1421 Laveta Terrace in Echo Park, Los Angeles, there stands a house walled by tall, bushy hedges. If passersby think that the owners are trying to hide something, though, they’d be mistaken. Tom House is named after the artist who occupied the attic bedroom for the last 10 years of his life: Touko Laaksonen, better known by his pseudonym, Tom of Finland. He made a career out of exposing the hidden — his drawings depicted gay men in exaggerated sexual positions — and the house is home to the Tom of Finland Foundation, though that mundane designation undersells the collective of free-spirited characters inside.
Today, Rizzoli releases “Tom House: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles,” a tour of the nearly 2,500 works that are housed there, and a peek into the subculture that still surrounds the Finnish artist today. Though Tom passed away in 1991 at 71, the house is his living, heavy-breathing legacy: In it are rows of leather jackets, ceiling cracks découpaged with art, and historical documents. There are also penis pillowcases, a bonafide sex dungeon, and a sign leading the way to “Pleasure Park,” a hillside where pleasure-seekers can find private pavilions. Pictures of the home, photographed by Martyn Thompson, are interspersed with Tom’s drawings.
"It’s a very real living culture. It’s almost like a legacy to Tom in a lot of ways because it’s completely liberated there,” said Michael Reynolds, the book's editor who was first exposed to Tom House when he visited for Out magazine nearly two decades ago. “People are free to express themselves sexually, artistically, and in many many ways intellectually. It is just this very liberated bubble. Maybe in the 1960s, there was a lot of that — but that does not exist anymore.”
Today, the Foundation hosts nude drawing classes, Mr. Leatherman competitions, and drag performances — and it is still ruled over by Durk Dehner, who bought the house first with his lover, his ex-lover, and his ex-lover’s lover in the mid-'70s. (“If fellas are new in town and they don’t know anybody, it’s a good place to build friendships — and sex partners too!” Dehner said.)
In 1976, Dehner was visiting New York and stopped off at the leather bar Spike, where he came across a reproduction of Tom’s work. The two became pen pals, and Dehner offered to host the artist during a trip to Los Angeles. Soon they were fast friends, and then business partners, and eventually Tom set up shop in the attic; he would later tell Dehner that it was there that he did some of his best work.
About that work: It’s hyper-masculine, homoerotic, and pornographic, but it is also more than that. “There’s a very funny interview where John Waters is like, you know, 'What an artist Tom of Finland was…'” recalled Reynolds. “He could draw anything so beautifully, even if it was his own mother! Subject matter aside, his handwork is really incredible and highly sophisticated. But he just happened to like drawing huge c---s. ”
Early on, the implications were more than just aesthetic. “In the '40s and '50s, Tom was creating this imagery during a very, very dark period for homosexuals and lesbians. It was a very repressed period to be gay,” Reynolds explained. “Tom was channeling light into a very dark place. When you look at Tom’s imagery, it’s always playful, light-hearted, with a sense of humor. As extreme and graphic as it all is, everyone actually seems to be having a lot of fun.”
“His fans would tell stories about being in some bum-f--k Texas town, finding his artwork on the cover of some little physique magazine in the drug store, and how they’d steal it, take it home, and hide it under the bed," Dehner added. "They used it as the key for their own development. In the mid-'70s, all these guys came of age and they came out — into the streets, I mean. There was so many of us and there was such an energy, and it was Tom who had sourced that.”
It's a strain of male erotica that is experiencing a comeback right now. Tom's own work was the subject of a retrospective last year at Artists Space in New York and this month, the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are opening exhibitions on Robert Mapplethorpe, who photographed the underground BDSM scene in New York in the late '60s and early '70s. (Both museums borrowed pieces from Tom House for the shows.) Next month, the documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures will premiere on HBO. And on May 7th, the largest exhibition of Tom of Finland's work to date will open at Kunsthalle Helsinki in Finland.
For Reynolds, this institutional endorsement is long past due. “If Jeff Koons can have massive photos of himself f---ing Cicciolina at the Whitney, and that’s considered blue-chip, mainstream art," he said, "Why isn’t it that there’s a Tom of Finland or a big, black Mapplethorpe c---- hanging at the Met or MoMA?” Indeed.