By Laurie Fendrich / Critics have been lavish in their praise of the Brown, queer-themed figurative paintings by the Pakistani-born Brooklyn artist Salman Toor, currently on view in the Whitney Museum’s first-floor lobby gallery (free of charge to the public). And rightly so. Toor’s pictures touch the heart, and his audacious drawing and sensitive paint handling satisfy our aesthetic longings.
Curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Abrika Trasi, “How Will I Know” – the title comes from the eponymous Whitney Houston song – is Toor’s first solo museum show, and likely not his last. With fifteen fairly small oil on panel paintings, it’s neither overwhelming nor skimpy. Most of the pictures are imagined scenes of the artist and his friends – in relaxed or stressful settings – and the show is hung in a semi-sequential manner that permits a viewer to suss out the story of Toor’s blended American-Pakistani life.
Born in 1983 into a middle-class family in Lahore, Pakistan, Toor grew up loving to draw and imitating such Old Masters as Caravaggio and Van Eyck. He came to the United States to attend Ohio Wesleyan University, where he studied realistic painting. (In a New York Times interview, he said he originally wanted to be “a very good academic painter.”) After moving to New York, Toor earned an MFA from Pratt. The Whitney presents him here as part of its “emerging artist” program, but his work is so mature he’s akin to Athena popping fully formed out of the head of Zeus.
Although a few of the pictures are fraught with anxiety about Brown queerness in a hostile white world – or in Pakistan, where LGBTQ are veritable criminals – what sets the mood are the many paintings of the artist and his friends as they go about ordinary living. The scenes reveal them gathering together inside apartments and talking, or hanging out, flirting and dancing in places where members of the LGBTQ community feel free to express their sexuality and ludic impulses. The exhibition reveals the shapeshifting performances required of all Brown queer people who navigate between survival in the real world, where being obsequious is a necessity, and their private world, where they experience joy and anguish of friendship, love, and sex just like everyone else.
Toor’s scenes center on his effective avatar – a gangly, awkward, hairy fellow sporting a long and comical nose that also appears, in various iterations, on the faces of other characters. He’s adorable, but, like The Pokey Little Puppy when facing the punitive prospect of no dinner, he’s also sad. When asked about the long noses in a New York magazine interview, Toor brought up Pinocchio and said he was interested in marionettes in general because they have “different parts that are put together to make this person who is maybe relatable and nice and moral – but in the fairy-tale language of a marionette.”
In The Star (2019), this deflection plays out almost literally. Toor sits in front of an oval mirror (setting the oval within the tondo that is the painting makes for a smart composition), while makeup artists ready him for some sort of public appearance. The artist gives us a profile of the artist’s face as he gazes at his reflection in the mirror, but a full, emotionless, puppet-like face shows up in the reflection. His long nose is depicted as both the real and the reflected, which suggests Pinocchio’s nose lengthening whenever he tells a lie; the idea that putting on makeup is a form of lying comes almost immediately to mind.
In Bar Boy (2019), the characters reflect emotions ranging from insecurity and anxiety to happiness, longing, and infatuation. Toor, who might have just arrived at the bar, stands in the center of the painting while gazing down at his cell phone (a gesture that says. “I’m preoccupied” or “I’m using this phone in order to hide”). Meanwhile, the patrons to either side of him go about their business, oblivious to his presence. On the far left, the drawing of the man with his head resting on his hand is breathtakingly deft. With nods to Daumier and Van Gogh (in the drawing), Manet (in the bottles above the bar on the left), and even Goya (in the paint handling), the artist has taken precisely what he needs from a variety of great artists. The agitated, radiant green, which ranges in value and tone, dominates not only this painting but the whole show. The artist says he sees green as a “completely aesthetic choice” that makes for a “sense of ambiance without being over-emotional,” and that green is “inviting and poisonous and glamorous.” I’m not aligned with him on this understanding of green, but this painting is a real tour de force.
The Whitney’s website offers an audio guide of Toor speaking about a few of his paintings. It’s idiosyncratic stuff, but artists’ convictions help propel them forward, and should rarely be taken as universal truths. What matters is that Toor knows how to move his brush and, unlike many painters today, understands Hans Hofmann’s great lesson that in painting, color creates light, whereas in nature, light creates color.
Whether they’re about the struggles of being gay in Pakistan or living as a gay man in the vastly more open and free social space of the West, Toor’s paintings are suffused with melancholy. By his own pictorial account, the urban West’s style of freedom doesn’t solve everything.
“Salman Toor: How Will I Know,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY. Through April 4.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University. Based in New York City and Lakeville, Connecticut, she is currently working on a new series of abstract paintings.