Tom of Finland - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session New York Thursday, November 18, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "[Tom of Finland] took the word butch and turned it into a lifestyle. No, a reason to live." —John Waters



    Tom’s Men


    Eleven drawings offer a titillating narrative of sexual encounter—a tumescent tangle of skin-tight leather in the exotic wilderness. Untitled  and known as the Motorcycle Series, the present group forms a fascinating and rare insight into the early career of the artist Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen in Kaarnia, Finland). Coming to auction on the heels of a series of international exhibitions celebrating what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday, the Motorcycle Series offers classic Finland flair, toeing the line between fine art and erotica with full-throated bravura.


    “Tom’s Men”—all bulging pectorals, washboard abs, and chiseled jawlines, scantily clad in uniforms or tight leather and jeans—formed archetypal images of gay culture throughout the latter half of the 20th century. From their origins as pictures passed between friends and lovers to their status today as a homoerotic lingua franca, Tom of Finland’s drawings portray a radical vision for their time: a world not simply normalizing but celebrating the trappings of gay desire and masculine fantasy.

    Becoming Tom of Finland


    Touko Laaksonen became Tom of Finland in 1957; the artist’s drawings had until then remained private material exchanged between friends as he worked by day at the advertising firm McCann Helsinki. At the encouragement of his small Helsinki audience, Laaksonen submitted artwork to photographer Bob Mizer’s Los Angeles-based Physique Pictorial in 1956. Pamphlet-style publications cheap to print and easy to hide—so-called “physique mags”—legally circulated homoerotic imagery under the watchful eyes of censors in postwar America. Mizer ran Physique Pictorial from his LA home, featuring local photography, painting, and drawing. Upon seeing Laaksonen’s submission, Mizer knew the artist’s smiling, sometimes-clothed heroes would make perfect content. For clarity and marketing’s sake, Mizer added “of Finland” to Laaksonen’s normal “Tom” signature; much to the artist’s chagrin, the name stuck, and the Spring 1957 issue of Physique Pictorial featured Tom of Finland’s first ever published image.


    Tom of Finland’s first Physique Pictorial cover, spring 1957. 

    The Motorcycle Series


    The Motorcycle Series demonstrates in rich detail Tom of Finland’s signature homoerotic chiaroscuro only two years after his Physique Pictorial debut. Early drawings such as these are exceedingly rare, especially as a full narrative group. Straddling the artist’s burgeoning presence in the international gay scene and his ongoing private drawing practice, the Motorcycle Series reflects the context of its commission. The present works were commissioned beginning in 1959 by Tony Hepworth, an avid motorcyclist from Yorkshire, England, who greatly admired Tom’s work. Seeking to support the artist, Tony sent him £25 each month—nearly $700 when adjusted for inflation— and in exchange received a new chapter of the present eleven-image serial story. Tony was an avid motorcyclist, and Tom was pleased to create an erotic storyline with a motorcycle rider as its protagonist for him. The arrangement was beneficial for both men: Tony received a unique, bespoke series featuring motorcycling as its central motif—one of his passions and eventually a primary theme in Tom’s œuvre—and Tom received a private commission that allowed him to indulge any fetish or fantasy censor-free.

    "At the time [before World War II], a gay man was made to feel nothing but shame about his feelings and his sexuality. I wanted my drawings to counteract that, to show gay men being happy and positive about who they were... I knew—right from the start—that my men were going to be proud and happy men!" —Tom of Finland



    Tom of Finland’s Lasting Impact


    Tom of Finland’s shaded black-and-white figures lended themselves to reproduction, saturating media and thus inspiring generations of queer artists in their wake. The artist himself became involved in various scenes over the course of his career, befriending the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe. One can be quick to draw visual affinities between the two artists’ and others’ work; ultimately, however, it is Tom of Finland’s universe of unbridled homosexual abandon that lives on. The Motorcycle Series is singular in its excellent condition and tense moment in Tom of Finland’s early career. In the leather and muscles of its biker protagonists, the work represents a symbolic coming-out, a reclamation of drawing to affirm and expand on what until then remained shrouded in secrecy. Between private and public, between friends and between cultures, Tom of Finland’s work arouses the same attention today as it did upon its creation.

    • Provenance

      Tony Hepworth, United Kingdom (acquired directly from the artist in 1959–1960)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2012

    • Exhibited

      New York, Artists Space; Kunsthalle Helsinki, Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play, June 13–September 13, 2015
      Provincetown, Woodman/Shimko Gallery, Tom of Finland, May 25–June 8, 2017


Eleven works: (i-xi) Untitled (Motorcycle Series)

(i-v) signed "Tom" lower right
graphite on paper
(i, iii) 12 3/8 x 9 in. (31.4 x 22.9 cm)
(ii) 12 1/2 x 9 5/8 in. (31.8 x 24.4 cm)
(iv, v, viii) 12 1/2 x 9 in. (31.8 x 22.9 cm)
(vi, vii) 9 x 12 1/2 in. (22.9 x 31.8 cm)
(ix) 13 x 9 1/2 in. (33 x 24.1 cm)
(x) 9 x 12 1/4 in. (22.9 x 31.1 cm)
(xi) 9 3/4 x 12 in. (24.8 x 30.5 cm)

Executed in 1959–1960, these works are associated with the Tom of Finland Foundation catalogue numbers 59.10–59.20.

Full Cataloguing

$180,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $189,000

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session, New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session

New York Auction 18 November 2021