Tom of Finland

at TBA, through March 27

David Seltzer: Sex Tales and Other Unrelated Matters

at Lallak + Tom, through March 27

By Mark Swartz

Tom of Finland used to strip naked before drawing, and as he drew he played with himself. Today he’s celebrated not for ambidexterity but for contributing to a particular ideal of male beauty: there’s a direct line from the pictures Tom started publishing in American muscle magazines back in the 1940s to the Village People in the 1970s and Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s. In the wake of Tom of Finland, writes Valentine Hooven III in his introduction to a collection of Tom pictures published by Taschen in 1992, “Gays were much more likely to be hard-bodied sun-lovers in boots and leather, masculinity personified.”

Tom–who was born Touko Laaksonen in 1920, on the south coast of Finland–had a fantasy life both single-minded and boundless. And after nearly 40 years of making homoerotic drawings for magazines, his talent for indulging in these fantasies began to win him recognition beyond the readership of those publications. The first successful public exhibit of his drawings was held in 1978, and from that time until his death in 1991 he enjoyed considerable fame, mostly within the gay community. He posed for Mapplethorpe, and the resulting photograph–which not surprisingly shows a man who looks nothing like the superidealized characters in his drawings–is the only non-Tom work at TBA. Fortunately, Tom looks like someone who enjoyed a good joke.

The pictures exhibited all come from the archive of the Tom of Finland Foundation, a group dedicated to erotic art. Although the show covers five decades, it doesn’t reveal a lot of development; once Tom found his style, he stuck with it. I’ll probably never fully appreciate these pictures since they don’t turn me on, but once I got over my initial embarrassment at the raunchier stuff, I developed a liking for their outrageous humor. In one, two guys stop doing it because they’re both more interested in watching three other guys doing it, and in another a guy in a park discovers that the woman he’s groping is in fact another guy.

Because these pictures were drawn first to get the artist off and second to get off the magazine readers of another era, it’s natural to ask what appeal they might hold for people today. I doubt they get anybody off anymore. Maybe this was hot stuff a few decades ago, but it’s unlikely to register on the same thermometer as the glossy magazines, cheap videos, and virtual-reality sex simulators available today. But if the pictures no longer do what they were intended to, neither have they settled into a comfortable aesthetic niche.

If you look at them with a purely aesthetic eye, they’re miserable. As representations of the male figure, they lack any sense of psychological depth or understanding of anatomy. Rather than sensuality or sexuality, they offer nothing more than a flippant acknowledgment of all the most obvious ways that two or more male bodies can interlock.

But if you look at them with a purely aesthetic eye, you’re missing the point. Tom of Finland made catalysts of sexual awakening. These pictures are relics of bygone erections, anthropological evidence of gay life–a life that’s changed so rapidly in the past few decades that evidence from the recent past seems as distant as a Pompeiian fresco.

Unlike Tom of Finland, New York photographer David Seltzer can’t be said to have invented anything new. But he’s resourceful enough to have come up with a consistently provocative series related to sex: large-scale black-and-white photographs taken using various filters to create atmosphere, then marked up with words and squiggles. These additions are sometimes made years after the pictures are taken; Seltzer told me that only after writing on a picture can he really call it his own.

Seltzer uses these familiar techniques to add even more romance to images already suggestive of New York high life. A waiter holding a tray loaded with glasses pauses to take a sip from one of them. A woman standing on a rooftop raises her skirt to expose her left buttock. Titles like Blue Letter to a French Lady and Her Men Had No Faces seem lifted from romance novels. I imagined that Seltzer’s job as a limousine driver would have afforded him the opportunity to spy on hundreds of couples, but he said his clientele doesn’t really represent any ideal of New York romance.

Instead these pictures are inspired by Seltzer’s own romantic exploits; he’s dated most of the women on display. Yet the gauziness added by his filters tends to obscure the situations and individuals depicted. Is this a comment on the mysteries of falling in love, the would-be Don Juan’s fantasy reduced to faceless men coupling with faceless women? Seltzer’s blurriest picture–Nobody, depicting a woman in a plaza–is only minimally erotic. (There’s a kind of blurring of identities in the Tom of Finland pictures too, which show practically no variety in facial and body types.)

Seltzer probably expends more energy convincing his models to assume the poses he wants than he does taking the pictures and developing them. More than photographic prowess, it takes diplomacy, tact, and imagination to get a woman to fit martini glasses over her nipples.

French Measurements is the sharpest, most specific, and most erotic picture in the exhibit; I returned to the gallery for another look not because it turned me on but because it made me think. First I wondered about the role the martini has played in the history of seduction and considered whether the inventor of the martini glass had breasts in mind. Then I thought of Cinderella and her glass slipper. French Measurements–a dumb title–ingeniously conflates mother’s milk with gin and vermouth, representing heterosexual males’ quixotic attempts at becoming men while remaining children. These thoughts went on and on; in fact, Seltzer may have made a picture too intellectual to be erotic. But he doesn’t consider his work to be just about sex. “I could make a lot more money in pornography,” he joked.

David Seltzer makes hetero-erotic pictures and Tom of Finland homoerotic ones, but both have incorporated their sex lives into their work–Seltzer’s at one remove. Though Seltzer told me that his goal was “art with a capital A,” he makes his pictures, I suspect, partly in order to get laid. He’s a cautious seducer, thinking about symbolism and worrying about presentation. Sometimes he worries too much, and the effect is overly slick and too well packaged. Tom, on the other hand, made his pictures to get himself off, which probably kept the artistic process worry free. It may have helped that he didn’t consider what he did to be art at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Drawing by Tom of Finland; “French Measurements” by David Seltzer.