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Artist Salman Toor’s Success Was a Surprise Even to Him

The young artist, celebrated for a smash-hit Whitney Museum show and a fresh approach to figurative painting, on his significant year ahead.

As a young man studying at Aitchison College, an English-style boarding school in Lahore, Pakistan, the artist Salman Toor was often bullied for being “very effeminate,” he says. Toor eventually found a way to use his drawing talent to his social advantage. “My skill was well-known at school, and these big boarding-school boys came to me and were like, ‘Could you please make me a nude picture’ ” of a woman, he says. “I got their protection from my art.”

Toor’s talent for figuration has since landed him greater breakthroughs, like his first global solo museum exhibition, Salman Toor: How Will I Know, on at the Whitney in New York until April 4. Before 2018—when Whitney curators Christopher Y. Lew and Ambika Trasi approached Toor about building an exhibition—Toor was relatively unknown in the West. 

After the Whitney news became public, he showed at Aicon Gallery in late 2018 in New York and at Perrotin in New York in 2019, and last year, he signed on with New York–based Luhring Augustine. His art is now in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Tate in London and at M Woods in Beijing, China. Between October and December last year, Phillips and Christie’s sold four of his paintings, including one that went for over eight times its high estimate, setting a record high for Toor.

Salman Toor, Four Friends, 2019. Oil on plywood, 40 × 40 in. Collection of Christie Zhou; image PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK.

“There’s such an immediacy to his work, yet it’s also so layered in its references to art history,” says Trasi, the Whitney exhibition’s co-curator. “He is really grounded in empathy and compassion toward that very diasporic South Asian community, which is not often represented in painting so directly.”

Toor’s paintings meld historical styles—namely, baroque, rococo and Romanticism—with scenes of ostensibly queer, often nude, southeast Asian men in contemporary settings. Nearly all of his paintings share a sense of isolation and disconnection. His 2019 painting Bar Boy, for instance, shows a young man, lithe and brown, in a bustling bar that could be 18th-century Paris or Vienna, though instead of standing in the glow of a candle he is looking at his phone. In 2019’s Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug, a haggard adolescent stands behind an anonymous table that might be a part of an airport security line, a depressed look on his face, as though struggling to come to terms with the suspicions his skin color might raise. 

Salman Toor, Bedroom Boy, 2019. Oil on plywood, 16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5 cm). Collection of Inam Malik. © Salman Toor.PHOTO: COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK

“I’m interested in interiority, helplessness and relationships to power,” Toor says. “Being nonwhite, inhabiting and owning a sense of self—and sexuality and fashion—is so important.”

In 2002, Toor left his family in Lahore to study for a bachelor of fine arts in painting at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. His parents, Toor says, were amused by his artistic passions. “They were interested in the idea of me as an artist, but it was in the sense of, ‘Oh, you have to [make some art] for the drawing room.’ ” In Ohio, he hung around mostly with a small southeast Asian community before joining a nearby hippie hangout in a dilapidated Victorian home. After graduating, he left for Brooklyn, where he received his MFA at Pratt in 2009. 

At Pratt and after graduating, he was confronted with the contemporary vogue for digitized art. He tried it out for a while—playing with laser printers, generating images on computers—but the formal constraints prohibited him from properly expressing himself. He preferred spending time in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, copying paintings by Caravaggio and Rubens, getting the feel of their figurative technique. The only way he felt able to express himself artistically was through drawing people—himself, friends, imagined communities. “I wanted to take a leap, to do something completely unplanned that would generate meaning for me,” he says.

Throughout his 20s and early 30s, he remained a relatively unknown artist outside of southeast Asia, where he exhibited in 2016 at one of Asia’s largest contemporary art festivals, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Many of his earlier paintings depicted scenes drawn from English literature or his social milieu—a servant-filled party at a family home, for instance. These works sold well enough in Pakistan that he was able to support his New York life. 

Salman Toor, Bar Boy, 2019. Oil on plywood, 48 × 60 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from John Auerbach and Ed Tang 2020.PHOTO: COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK

The stylistic leap he took, around 2017, was to mix the figurative techniques of 17th- and 18th-century painters with the contemporary, queer life he was beginning to live in New York. (In Pakistan, homosexuality is illegal and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.) He tends to use gradations of green and gray to create quotidian scenes of young brown men partying, drinking, smoking and sleeping. The emphasis is on their ability to simply live, unencumbered by sociocultural forces, like homophobia, racism or immigration law. “I am trying to own my own culture but at the same time capture the boys in the East Village where I lived for six years, or working in my Brooklyn studio every day, then doing the whole nightlife thing,” he says. 

Making art right now is tricky with the coronavirus pandemic, but Toor’s depictions of parties and mask-free socializing are nods to the past. All of his paintings in the Whitney were made between 2018 and 2020, though he says he is continuing to depict dreamy scenes of community and socializing.

Some of his paintings more explicitly face socio-political realities. In Car Boys (2019), a policeman streams a flashlight into a car driven by a young brown man while another brown man, seemingly his lover, sits in the passenger seat. The steering wheel is on the car’s right side, implying that the scene might be in Pakistan and their relationship therefore forbidden. In Immigration Portrait (2018), the bottom half of the sole man depicted has seeped into the painting’s background, disappeared—a brown body both present and not. 

“He is very mindful of the kind of cultural nuances of where these paintings are being shown,” says Lew, the Whitney curator. “That’s one of the other powerful things about his work: The paintings do different things in different contexts, and he’s very aware of that.”

Toor’s commercial success is slightly uncomfortable for him. In December, an early work, Liberty Porcelain (2012), sold at Phillips for $505,688 including buyer’s premium—over six times its high estimate. Rooftop Ghost Party I, one part of a 2015 triptych, sold for $822,000, against a $150,000 high estimate at Christie’s, also in December. 

“My art is, I guess, a handshake between the culture and the market,” he says. “It’s a capitalist system and people have decided to devour marginalized experiences and bodies all over again.”

Salman Toor in his studio. PHOTO: JUSTIN LEVERITT

Even being offered the Whitney exhibition came as such a surprise that Toor misunderstood what the curators were proposing. When Toor learned his show would be in the Lobby Gallery, he thought it would be small, not even an exhibition. “I thought, Oh, they just want me to put down two or three paintings in the lobby of the Whitney,” he says. “It’s not a real show.” The end result featured 15 new and recent oil paintings, placing him in the lineage of artists including Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Cindy Sherman, who also had early-career exhibitions at the Whitney.

In the coming year, Toor has an exhibition at Luhring Augustine in February. Called The Pleasure Pavillion, it will include two new works from Toor, placed around a re-created facade of a Mughal-style pavilion in the gallery’s Bushwick, Brooklyn, space. He plans also to turn to video later this year, a potentially risky move from a market perspective, given that his figurative depictions are selling extremely well. 

“Even though it’s scary to me, I have to overcome some of my cautiousness, because there’s a lot more riding on it,” says Toor. “I never had anything to lose before.”

This article originally appeared at WSJ.

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