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Issue 218

Salman Toor’s Cosmopolitan Queer Life

The artist's first institutional solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art explores lives of Brown, queer subjects through a scrim of nostalgia

BY Tausif Noor in Reviews , US Reviews | 16 FEB 21

I don’t remember precisely when I first saw Salman Toor’s paintings but I do distinctly remember how I felt in that moment: a particular flash of recognition, a momentary illumination that results from seeing and being seen. In his scenes of the lives of queer people of colour, Toor extends this evanescent flash onto the quotidian activities of his androgynous Brown subjects, who gather for parties in cramped apartments and spend evenings at crowded bars or alone in bed. Along with Doron Langberg and Anthony Cudahy, Toor joins a cohort of queer figurative artists negotiating the history of painting and the contemporary developments that condition their subjectivity. Though Toor eschews the formal innovation of such painters as Jonathan Lyndon-Chase, rendering his scenes in a self-consciously Western academic style reminiscent of Antoine Watteau’s fêtes galantes (e.g. The Embarkation for Cythera, 1717), he updates his references with iPhones and other technological accoutrements of contemporary living, depicting his cosmopolitan queer milieu through a scrim of nostalgia.  

A selection of 15 of these paintings at the Whitney Museum comprises ‘How Will I Know’, the artist’s highly anticipated first museum show, which was delayed by the ongoing pandemic and has been extended through early April. In the intimacy of Toor’s scenes, such as the domestic revelry of the titular figures in Four Friends (2019), or the sense of urban anomie in the crowd depicted in Bar Boy (2019), one could read a different nostalgia, induced by the pandemic, for the pleasures of proximity as the critic Johanna Fateman rightly observed. Irradiated by emerald-green backgrounds, the subjects of these paintings are engrossed in the moment, their worlds bounded by the space of the rooms they occupy.

Salman Toor, Four Friends
Salman Toor, Four Friends, 2019, oil on panel, 102 × 102 cm. Collection of Christie Zhou. Courtesy: the artist and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Born in Lahore and currently based in New York’s East Village, Toor arrived in the United States in the early 2000s, when the discourse around South Asians in America was dominated by foreign-policy objectives following 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As he recounted in a discussion with the exhibition’s co-curator Ambika Trasi and artist Chitra Ganesh, Toor felt the pressure of having to respond to these realities while negotiating his own desires for safety and freedom to roam the spaces that drew him to the West in the first place, like museums and bars.

That tension is evident in this exhibition, where state surveillance and its attendant threats of violence are never far from the experience of pleasure, as seen in The Smokers (2018), where a police officer hovers just around the corner from a trio of men outside a bar. In Car Boys (2019), set apparently in Pakistan as evidenced by the badge-emblazoned berets and blue uniforms of the police officers, the agents of the state interrogate a pair of men who have driven their automobile to a quiet forest for a clandestine romantic encounter. Surveillance is not limited to such particular geographies, but also applies in the transit between them, as seen in Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug and Two Men with Vans, Tie, and Bottle (both 2019), which form part of the artist’s series about immigration and detail the inspection of sundry belongings as a result of racial profiling in the post-9/11 and post-Muslim travel-ban era.

Salman Toor, Puppy Play Date
Salman Toor, Puppy Play Date, 2019, oil on panel, 102 × 76 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

These penumbric works are a stark counter to the louche effervescence that characterizes the majority of Toor’s paintings which – taken together with their mannerist cartoonish facture – form a narrative arc reminiscent of William Hogarth’s moralizing engravings (e.g. A Harlot’s Progress, 1831), while nevertheless depicting the particular reality of Brown subjects under postcolonial administrative logic. The small details in Toor’s paintings – the branded shoes, the cosmetics, the figures’ style of dress – suggest that his subjects, marked as queer subjects through these symbols, form a particular class assimilated into the logic of homonationalism, one legible and appropriate for a museum whose exhibitions tend to wax nostalgic for erstwhile downtown scenes. No artist should be faulted for depicting what they know or aspire to, less still for doing so in such a beautiful manner, but such is the limit of recognition and of identification: a mirror image can only take you so far.

Salman Toor's 'How Will I Know' is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through 4 April 2021.

Main image: Salman Toor, Sleeping Boy, 2019, oil on panel, 23 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Tausif Noor is a critic and curator. His writing has appeared in Artforum, The New York Times and other periodicals, as well as in various exhibition catalogues.