The Tom of Finland Foundation is located at the top of a palm-lined hill in Echo Park. Parallel parking nearby, I don’t realize how close I am to the curb until the rental car’s passenger side grinds into the high sidewalk, shaving off much of the paint of the lower part of the Toyota Corolla. “Oh shit,” Stewart says, getting out to eye the damage. “It’s pretty bad.” I get out and look at it, too. It’s bad. I’m a terrible driver and hung over, too; the passenger door is bent such that a kind of grimacing face appears below the handle and stares up at us. “Well,” Stewart says, running his hand over the dent, “there’s nothing we can do now.” I take a photo of the damage and email it to myself. Standing in the shadows of the curbside hedgerows, I feel sick. I’m sure they’ll charge me a lot to buffer it out. The smug face in the paint knows it, but he’s right, there’s nothing we can do now. “Let’s just go to the house,” I say, and lock the doors.
Durk Dehner and S.R. Sharp were both members of the Dehner Boys biker gang when they befriended (and modeled for) Tom of Finland in the 1970s. Durk and Tom founded the Tom of Finland Foundation in 1979, first as a company before they changed its tax status to a non-profit in 1984. The Foundation is housed in Tom’s former home, where Dehner and Sharp now live and manage Tom’s estate as well as a massive collection of erotic art and a yearly erotic art competition. Stewart and I meet our friend Karl there, who’s arrived early and is sitting on the couch next to Sharp. Karl is a poet from Berlin and has an antsy nervousness; he sits with his hands resting between his legs, like he has to pee. “Hiiiiiiii,” he says, drawing out the word when we step onto the porch. Sharp gets up to greets us. He takes my hand, holds it for a moment, and asks if we’d like coffee. I say yes. He’s wearing a Tom of Finland t-shirt and fatigue shorts that extend just past his knees. He puts out a cigarette in a dish and brushes back his long gray hair before he disappears into the house to fetch the coffee, which he serves to us in Tom of Finland mugs.
It is very hot outside, but in the shade the dry summer is therapeutic and relaxing. I stare at the bushes while we smoke cigarettes on the weatherworn couches. We each tell Sharp who we are when he asks our story. The painter Richard Hawkins, who used to work for the Foundation in the early 1990s, had introduced us all over email earlier in the week, but he didn’t say much about who we were, only that we should pilgrimage to the house. Stewart says he’s an artist and Sharp takes this in with a smile. He loves artists.
“I’m Andrew,” I say, “I’m a writer.” He nods. It must be one of the few times someone hasn’t followed up with “What do you write?” I never know. Sharp must know that I don’t know. I steal a glance at Karl, who sips his coffee furtively as though he were hiding it, turning his head about to stare at different parts of the cluttered porch. Durk comes out and we all go silent. “This is…” Sharp begins.
“We don’t have guests on Sunday,” Durk rushes out. He looks like he’s been practicing his lines for an hour. He almost stands on his tiptoes when he talks, his face quivering from restraint: “We have one day off and it’s Sunday. Seeing as it’s Sunday we haven’t had the chance to clean up but of course you’re welcome here, welcome to see our home.” He bows and leaves. I ask if we should go, if we’re imposing. Sharp shakes his head and waves the idea away. “That’s Durk, our founder. You’ll meet him later. He’s just grumpy. You’re staying.”
“OK,” Karl says. We all look at him.
“Touko Laaksonen gave us a vision,” Sharp continues, using Tom’s given name, “a utopia, where you could pursue your desires unafraid of what everyone thought.” I nod—I like Tom of Finland, but I’ve never thought of his work as utopian, as being part of any utopia I’d want to live in, though our differences are plotted so far apart on the timeline that binds us I concede that post-Stone Wall, post-AIDS crisis my position is rather cushy and I can do whatever I want and no one cares, it’s already on TV anyway. Not so for Touko. “Tom gave us this world where you could just fuck … in the park, in a public park, and no one is ashamed. You see it in the drawings. For us”—the Dehner boys, but I suppose he means gay men everywhere—“it was good to see sex without shame, especially during the 1980s.” I pass my empty mug between my hands. One of Tom’s leather-clad, beefcake bikers stands grinning in Superman-esque pose on it. Sharp and Durk are not only the stewards of Tom’s legacy, they are firm believers in its power to change the world, and they carry within themselves a dream for bodies liberated of sexual and social constraints imposed by the straight world off the porch, off the drawing paper. I keep thinking about how their lives are a job, caretakers devoted to a single body of work (one in which their bodies are represented), but realize as Sharp speaks that life long ago dissolved the job into itself and their freedom seems exceptional and enviable. They come to and are the Church of Tom of Finland, the corporeal god they knew. “Do you want to see the house?” Sharp asks.
“Yes, please,” Stewart says.
In addition to Tom’s work, the Foundation has amassed an enormous (perhaps the largest) collection of erotic art—much of it sent to them voluntarily—that they have archived throughout the years, both in the salon-style rooms of the house and in large storage units cattycorner to the porch. Much of it isn’t any good, even what is on display, what I assume is the best of the best. (Later Richard says the best is hidden, obviously.) Many of the works fall into two categories: stylized depictions of the male figure and scenes of cruising. Tom’s work often blended both categories, collapsing the voyeuristic and the participatory into overlapping fields of sensuality. Men peer out from behind trees to watch other men fuck, their expressions coy or filled with knowing satisfaction (there is never any glee) and both the voyeurs and the participants are given equal attention in the foreground. Backgrounds—the space where men aren’t—tend to be more vague, often simple parks or non-places (my favorites are usually blank spaces save a few trees floating in the white). Looking at one particular drawing of an orgy in an Edenic public park that Sharp shows us and uses as an example of Tom’s utopian project, explaining that the men behave sexually in public unashamed of their bodies or their desire, Jan Breughel’s Garden of Paradise comes to mind, a work in which the artist presented an exotic array of animals (peacocks, leopards, monkeys) in the foreground while those he was less familiar with he relegated to a less defined background (elephants, giraffes). Tom seems to have not known much about the world outside of men: references to those categories that define the shape of things outside of the erotic scope of the work—cops, sailors, bikers, even Nazis—are non-specific types, the politics of the uniform side-lined for a reality Tom does not include except as costume, as drag. Inverse to Tom’s vivid men, Breughel included the only humans in his painting, Adam and Eve, in the background.
Sharp takes us around the house, through the clutter of the house’s rooms, pointing out some of their collection on display. On the second floor, one piece—painted on the ceiling like a Renaissance chapel—shows a man, seen from below, standing over a broken floorboard, revealing his big balls and drooping cock. We stare up and Sharp explains that the commission came about after the ceiling was damaged. “We thought, let’s not just paint it. We can have someone do something with it!” Across the hallway, there’s a door open a crack: a shirtless boy sits motionless in front of a TV with an error screen. I try to point him out to Stewart but we leave before I can get his attention.
There are men everywhere. Nearly every inch of wall space is dedicated to a Tom of Finland piece or a work of erotic art acquired by intent or accident, sent by post by anonymous artists, artists who worked under—and because of—the assumption of sexual genius, forgotten artists, works Sharp glances at, points to, nods toward on his tour, occasionally throwing out the artists’ names, the highlights of their career, all of it so brief I either forget the artist’s name immediately or write it down wrong, misattributing pieces in my notes. The images range in size and content, from small portraits of naked men done by an unknown Japanese man who, for years, sent them the postcard-sized works until he abruptly stopped, to large paintings from well-known erotic artists. We pass a painting of a bar, pre-Stonewall so the types of men represented have this repressed feel to me, businessmen eying one another amid discreet twinks, perhaps they’re sex workers, a somber scene without much light, the figures lost in shadows, similar to but also completely the opposite of Paul Cadmus’s famous Bar Italia with its big, flamboyant color palette. I keep thinking a utopia of men is no utopia, and as we follow Sharp’s tour I internalize a chant: a utopia of men is no utopia, a utopia of men is no utopia.
Sharp takes us into a room where the Foundation organizes its archive of erotic books and magazines, much of them piled up on a large table in the middle of the room. “We’ll never finish,” he says and shows us some examples of recently acquired material that the Foundation still needs to file: jerk-off zines, issues of Straight to Hell, a few post cards of vintage porn, one anachronistic glossy with a sailor undressing on the cover, his fat hard-on visible through his white pants. The degree to which everything about their work is left incomplete seems less of a challenge than a point of pride. Each room is somehow tied to work that will never be finished, work that will always go on, and when Sharp stresses there’s still more to do he smiles and pauses to let it sink in: this will never end, every one of us in the room, in the house, will eventually die, fade out, but Tom and the art accrued by his foundation will not, someone will be here to collect and organize for more visitors, for more poets and artists and writers to come see.
I look at Stewart and Karl. They both nod a lot whenever Sharp says something, but nothing about their expressions gives away real feeling. Are they OK with us dying and Tom living forever? I am. Sharp takes us up to a room where some photographs of Tom’s models are presented next to his drawings. He points to one: “The thing you notice is how faithful he was to the people he drew. He accentuates features, of course, but they look like themselves.”
I lean in and say, “Uh huh,” surprised to find that Sharp is right. The men in the photographs look very similar to Tom’s drawings of them. He straightened the jawlines, beefed them up a bit, but to a far lesser degree than I had imagined he would. These drawings are realistic, it occurs to me. We go through more photo and drawing comparisons. In each case, the men look like Tom’s version of them. The obvious strikes me immediately and I’m dumbfounded to realize how much these works result from love, not utopia. He loves them, adores them, wants to set them on the page to keep them there forever, exempt from human aging and death and disease. The drawings are a form of friendship. Stewart nods and takes a photo of them.
Durk never comes back but I wonder where he is. He modeled for Tom, was his lover, and founded the Tom of Finland Company with Tom in hopes of advancing Tom’s work through exhibitions and merchandise. Durk first came across Tom’s work when he was twenty-six and living in New York. He’d gone to a leather bar and saw a small drawing by Tom on the wall that he stared at for a long time after he recognized himself in it. For him, the drawing represented who he was—or who he wanted to be—in a way no other art ever had. He snatched it off the wall and showed it to a friend who told him that it was by Tom of Finland. Durk wrote Tom a letter and went out to LA to meet him. He later became his “muse,” as Durk says, his confidante. They started the business together and Durk became a Dehner, one of a gang of biker boys with whom Tom spent much of his free time. Bruce Weber photographed Durk in the 1970s. In the photo, his face is smooth and muscular, his shirtless torso slim and chiseled, though not as much as the figures in the drawings Tom made using him as a model, but still the resemblance is uncanny, Tom’s cop and Bruce’s Durk, establishing a feedback loop where it is difficult to tell whether or not he transformed himself into a work by Tom of Finland or Tom of Finland transformed his men into Durk. In later photos I find online, Durk wears the police uniforms that Tom liked to draw: tight leather, the the breeches protruding slightly in the fascist style. He’d become the art he cherished, remaking himself into a flat type in the photographs, a cop without the law, deputized by sexual immanence.
I heard there was a dungeon in the basement of the house, but that it’s currently under renovation and unavailable to see on public tours. I don’t ask Sharp about it, but as we walk around the house I think about the ropes and equipment downstairs, below the floor. Perhaps Durk is there meditating or working out, away from us, the public. I don’t feel well anymore, my stomach tightens at the thought that I am the public, or that I am not the public, that I don’t even know what the public is, and I realize that I’m hungry.
“Where’s the bathroom?” I ask. I’m slightly dizzy, so at first I think I got the words wrong. Stewart and Karl look at me with some concern. “The bathroom,” I start again, “is it, um, where…”
“Just down the hall,” Sharp says.
Inside, I pace a bit. I open the window to get some air, my chest tightening a little. I take a seat on the toilet and bury my face in my hands. Do I need more coffee? Am I hungover? Am I having a panic attack? Am I a desiring machine? The bathroom is big and cold. Behind the toilet is a sculpture of a penis that urinates into a bowl after you flush. I get up to splash water on my face. In the mirror I look like myself, my eyes green and my complexion a bit red and tanned but nevertheless me: I had hoped I wouldn’t find myself recognizable, different from the person I was when I entered the house, changed in the blip of a panicky moment in the face of so many cocks. Earlier in the day, we’d stopped at David Kordansky Gallery for a show of Tom’s early drawings, mostly from the 1940s. It was the first time I’d seen real works by Tom and not reproductions. They were beautiful: portraits of idealized men sucking one another off, cuddling. Some of the drawings were more like sketches, his earliest works. When I look at Tom of Finland I don’t feel like Durk in the leather bar, I don’t see myself, I don’t see my friends, I don’t see Stewart or Karl, I don’t even see Sharp or Durk, both of whom see themselves in the work, instead I see these bodies sealed within a realm of ideals I am otherwise meant to dream of, hope to realize at the gym, but of course that isn’t the point at all and yes, I am a desiring machine, a robot assembling and disassembling itself at the whim of others, input and output. We went to the gallery with a friend who is trans and she said fuck Tom of Finland. There are moments, all of which are brief but poweful, where I feel like art carries me away from myself, from my body, temporarily relegating me to an alien subject position in the back of the room, from where I observe a representation that feels impossibly far from my experience of the world. Am I a prude? it occurs to me and I look in the mirror again. No. I try to imagine Richard working here in his early twenties, collecting and organizing and figuring himself out through the process of doing so, honing the collagist’s sensibility of the possible relations between unlike things or things only tenuously related to one another, related because of how hot or cool or cute or good they look when they are brought together for the first time, cleaved from one context in order to energize another, combined and recombined into tiny machines. The window in the bathroom is still open and a faint breeze comes through. Go out, I tell myself. I wipe my face with a towel and return to the magazine room. Stewart looks at me and mouths, Are you OK? I nod, Yes.
Sharp takes us downstairs to a room filled with Tom of Finland memorabilia. Much of his work is dedicated to raising awareness of Tom in his home country of Finland. Ignored for most of his life by the bashful Finnish cultural authorities (whoever that may be—Sharp is never very clear about who in Finland should be recognizing him), Tom recently received some attention there for his work. The country issued a popular Tom of Finland stamp, for one, and for the Foundation this is a very big deal. A towel and clothing line featuring Tom’s work was a bestseller: “You could see stores with it in the windows all over Helsinki,” Sharp says handing me one. “So soft.” The Foundation prints facsimiles of his zines, t-shirts, most of it for sale here though he doesn’t ask us if we want to buy anything. Other items, rare or discontinued, are kept under glass in a cabinet. Sharp holds up the Finnish stamp and shows it to us. “Slowly,” he tells us, “Finland is recognizing their favorite son.”
Outside the house, Sharp shows us the Foundation’s old El Camino, which they’d once covered in decals of Tom of Finland drawings for a Gay Pride Parade years ago. The decals have since faded or were scraped off and only the faint outline of the drawings remain. The car must have sat in the sun for a decade and it doesn’t look like it will ever run again. From the outside the house isn’t organized or pretty like the other homes on the street. Who are these neighbors generous enough to not phone in complaints to some city agency about the giant storage unit or the odd, junk-cluttered yard and garden, an El Camino stripped by the desert of its paint? Good neighbors. “Maybe one day we’ll get it done permanently,” Sharp says.
“I think I like it this way,” I say. Karl agrees. Stewart stands there quietly. He runs his hand across the back of the car where a few stickers were still mostly visible.
“You could get this done in vinyl,” he says. “It’d be more permanent.”
“That’s what we want to do,” Sharp says.
I try to imagine the parade in which Durk and Sharp drove this car. I want to place it in the 1990s, but it was probably more recent, early to mid-2000s. Sharp says everyone cheered. Tom is famous, especially in LA, where older men still remember knowing him personally, seeing him at bars, and so they must have lined up the street in the sun to cheer as the Foundation’s car passed them by, Durk and Sharp sitting in the back like a president and first lady’s motorcade, waving back to the crowd with men dressed in leather and sailor outfits smiling around them. The parade is huge and mostly for Tom, all for Tom, actually, and everyone in Los Angeles is celebrating him, his triumph over death through the popularity of his drawings, the El Camino is newish, there is no plague, or there is plague but there is no plague stigmatized by theirs or any other community, community sounding kind of dumb to everyone at the moment as they drunkenly scream Tom’s name because who? what? why? where?, it’s Tom, that’s all, Tom, Tom, Tom, they cheer louder as the car moves on under the sun.