In the decade before his death, Finland-born Touko Laaksonen (1920 – 1991) – best known by the artistic pseudonym Tom of Finland – lived in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighbourhood, where he spent the final years of his life adding to his prolific catalogue of sexually liberated, libidinally charged illustrations of beefed-up men, which first appeared in Bob Mizer’s homoerotic magazine Physique Pictorial in the 1950s. 

The Echo Park home – now owned by the Tom of Finland Foundation, which the artist founded with friend, lover, and business partner Durk Dehner in 1984 – is known as ‘Tom House’ and has become an elysium for queer and erotic artists from around the world, who make a pilgrimage to the Los Angeles address to hone their craft in a series of residencies. As such, Tom House’s 14 rooms claim more than 3,500 works of erotic art and over 100,000 pieces of ephemera, memorabilia and objects from both Tom himself and those who have called the property home over the years – a fittingly expansive collection for the artist’s own outsized legacy.

This past weekend, thousands of miles away in the backstreets of Venice’s northern Cannaregio district, a characteristically leather-clad Dehner – who remains president of the Tom of Finland Foundation – found himself back in Tom House’s living room, albeit a recreation created for the foundation’s new group exhibition ‘AllTogether’ at Studio Cannaregio (23 April – 26 June 2022), supported by Italian fashion label Diesel and curated in association with Paris’ The Community gallery. Around Dehner, objects capture the home’s heady mix of the erotic and domestic: a nude photograph of a man in the reflection of a bathroom mirror, a plastic phallus, mugs, figurines, a roll-along drinks trolley with a single bottle of Tom of Finland-branded vodka on top. 

Recreation of Tom House’s living room at ‘AllTogether’ by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community, in Venice
Recreation of Tom House’s living room at ‘AllTogether’ by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community

Drawing on the foundation’s history of both preserving the work of queer artists – many of whom faced discrimination and legal consequences in their time for their creations – and promoting a new generation of erotic art, ‘AllTogether’ attempts to capture the unique spirit of those who have passed through Tom House in the past three decades, alongside the pioneers who came before them. Spanning the 1940s to the present day, the exhibition explores Tom’s unique and pervasive legacy, interspersing his own illustrations with the varying works of artists who have come in his wake. ‘The challenge of creating the exhibition was to have the impact and effect of coming to Tom House,’ says Dehner. ‘We hope that people here get that same feeling of home.’ 

Numbering around 80 works across mediums – painting, illustration, sculpture, photography, film and printed ephemera – ‘AllTogether’ coincides with the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, which returns this year after a three-year hiatus post-pandemic. The exhibition also marks the first time that some works from the Tom of Finland Foundation’s diverse permanent collection have been presented to the public outside of Tom House, though Dehner notes that it’s not the first time Tom’s own work has appeared in Venice during the Biennale; in 2009, Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset included a number of his illustrations in their Nordic Pavilion. ‘It’s typical that he would lead the pack here. Tom’s the head of the family, the grandaddy, and now the whole extended family gets to come to the Biennale and be here with him.’

In fact, such an exhibition has been over three decades in the making, first discussed at a time when the artist was still alive and transforming the Echo Park home into the community space it is today. ‘We always dreamed about having an exhibition, which would be all of his friends’ art, and all of his art together, and out in the world,’ says Dehner. It is unlikely that Tom would have been able to imagine how far his own influence would extend in the time that followed, though; as Dehner says, in his lifetime he was an artist working truly at the margins, a large bulk of his output created secretly in Finland during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the country (now, he is something of a Finnish institution, his illustrations placed on a series of stamps by the Finnish Postal Service in 2014). 

Tom of Finland, Untitled, c.1966-1990 © Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland, Untitled, c.1966-1990 © Tom of Finland Foundation

‘Tom was creating work in the 1950s, and homosexuality was outlawed [in Finland] until 1971. We went through a lot – the fact is, when the foundation got started, Aids came about and so we had to take the back seat and take care of our own in order to be able to survive all these years. The foundation was discriminated against for grants, but I think now society is willing to see what our contribution is. These works are something to celebrate and enjoy, to pleasure oneself.’

What is notable about ‘AllTogether’ is Tom’s marathon-like cultural endurance, which has inspired whole generations of queer artists to embrace the erotic in their own life and work (as well as spawning various exhibitions, books, even a 2017 feature film). Like Dehner himself – in 1976, while a young man in his twenties, he encountered one of Tom’s illustrations in the Spike bar, New York. Immediately struck, he tore the poster from the wall and asked a friend – the artist Dom Orejudos, aka Etienne, whose work also appears in the exhibition – for Tom’s address, later writing him an admiring ‘fan letter’ (their relationship would see them meet in Los Angeles in 1977). 

‘It seemed to affect me in a way that art never had before, an emotional way. There was something in it that made it feel like he had done these pictures for us, for gay boys. That was important in a world where nothing felt like it was made for you.’ 

Installation view, ‘AllTogether’ by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community
Installation view, ‘AllTogether’ by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community

Several years later, in a small town outside of Bruges, Belgium, a young Glenn Martens – the creative director of exhibition partner Diesel, who also helms Belgium-based label Y/Project – found a similar feeling of belonging in one of Tom’s illustrations, joining a long line of fashion designers who have noted the influence, both implicit and explicit, of the artist on their own work. (Clothes were surprisingly important to Tom, particularly the erotic charge of leather and denim – Dehner recounts that he would say ‘his men look so much more sexy in clothes than they do naked’.)

‘Tom of Finland is one of those artists that you encounter who helps you understand your sexuality, your place in society,’ says Martens, who also came to Venice for the opening. ‘I grew up in a very provincial town where there was no gay world, but thanks to symbols like this, you also start accepting that actually it’s fine to be who you are.’ 

Such stories are pervasive in the exhibition itself, which connects threads of artists from around the world who have been drawn into Tom’s orbit, many of whom undertook stints at Tom House – American filmmaker and photographer Matt Lambert, Spanish illustrator Silvia Prada, and German photographer Florian Hetz among them. Some works in ‘AllTogether’ are unabashedly, exuberantly sexual – ejaculating penises, assholes exposed to the air, copulating groups of men – others more reserved, hovering on singular body parts, or darkly-lit moments of embrace. 

Florian Hetz, Untitled, 2017
Florian Hetz, Untitled, 2017

Dehner says it is about an appreciation of sexuality, in all its forms. ‘You don’t have to be pounding somebody to appreciate your own sexuality. It can also be about how you view other people. We’re hoping that people will relax and enjoy their own sexual desires by seeing them expressed in these ways.’ 

In keeping with this mood, a small capsule collection of clothing from Martens and Diesel will be adorned with various works from the exhibition – from a T-shirt to a jockstrap. ‘It’s all about the art, so we didn’t design too much,’ says Martens. ‘It’s for Pride Month, and I think a lot of brands just are trying to market for a minority when they do that. But we want to think about a community that’s still persecuted, and to actually give back and highlight these artists’ work. I always hope people who wear my clothes feel sexy and empowered, to live life to its fullest.’

Dehner says the main challenge of the exhibition was how to narrow down the foundation’s vast collection; as such, a subsequent iteration of ‘AllTogether’ will open at Paris’ The Community Centre gallery next month, featuring a new set of artworks. It means those that end up in the two exhibitions have special emotional resonance to Dehner and the foundation. On a walkthrough, he pauses in front of an illustration of a battered pair of black leather boots, from 2006. The artist is Carrington Galen – known in his work simply as ‘Dylan’ – a close friend of Tom House who created its notorious ‘Pleasure Park’ gardens, a winding trail of verdant pathways named after one of Tom’s cruising comics. In 2016, after having been diagnosed with incurable cancer, Galen chose to pass away at the house he had given his life to, in the gardens he helped to create. Dehner says he died as the sun was setting, surrounded by his Tom of Finland community. 

Installation view, ‘AllTogether’ by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community
Installation view, ‘AllTogether’ by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community

Later that evening in Venice, after dark, a crowd of people – each in some way related to the foundation, some dressed from the pages of Tom’s work – came together to celebrate the exhibition’s opening (others pooled the narrow street outside, waiting to get in). In the gallery’s courtyard, a bar had been erected; the artist Silvia Prada played at a DJ booth underneath a sign which read ‘Pleasure Park’. In keeping with Dehner’s desires, pleasure-seeking was indeed the mood: partygoers danced, chatted, drank Tom of Finland vodka. Inside, the Tom House living room filled with people, sprawled on chairs and deep in conversation – a new generation of the Tom of Finland family, gathered from around the world. 

‘Present-day artists are inspired by the generation before, they feed off each other,’ Dehner said earlier in the day. ‘At the foundation, we promote the present and future, and protect the past. That’s really what creates community and family, because family isn’t just who’s alive today – it’s where you come from, all the people came before.’ §