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The Servant

The Servant
oil on canvas
43 x 30 in. (109.2 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 2013.
Rohtas 2 Gallery, Lahore
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Lot Essay

I am grateful that I live in a time when it is possible to extend the respect and dignity usually reserved in the history of painting for wealthy white people to others...Through painting, I try to conjure a world where people of color are equal and proud heirs to the humanist culture that hosts the freedoms that we enjoy in urban centers in the West.
—Salman Toor

An early triumph of Salman Toor’s burgeoning career, the present lot pays a sophisticated homage to artists and centuries past while artfully exploring the alienating chasm of affluence and poverty. The Servant is a prime example of the artist’s tantalizing series of portrayals of the relationship between servant and master that Toor completed in 2013. Here, the artist alludes to early iterations of his boisterous soirees and lyrical bodies that have since landed his works front and center in a highly celebrated solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, educated in the midwestern United States, and now settled in Brooklyn, New York, Toor’s early style is one that reveals a formal training and deep awareness in Western art history. In Toor’s own words: “In my art history classes at college in Ohio I learned about the grimy peasants in David Teniers and Bruegel, the dark-skinned servants in Dutch genre paintings, the steely refinement of an Anthony van Dyck subject, the sordid nightlife of Impressionist Paris” (S. Toor, quoted in BOMB, 12 February 2021). Appropriately, Toor’s premature academic style is rendered in traditional oils of rich surfaces, sienna earth tones and informed compositions. Calling to mind Peter Paul Rubens’s own masterpiece, A Satyr Holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph, the present lot’s protagonist carries the weight of the composition’s pictorial space along with a tray of delectable wines. Faint traces of silver highlights and glazes of thin, rose hues reveal Toor’s exceptional painterly skill and reverence for Dutch predecessors; here, the artist’s hand has rendered an illusion of crystal so faithful one could almost lift a beverage off of the attendant’s dish for his or her own indulgence.
Equally tantalizing in detail, Toor’s lavish gradations of blue, peach and softened amber fabrics outfit the servant and his vibrant milieu of patrons. As if he were adopting the style of a Bacchanalian history painting, Toor captures men and women embracing tenderly, laughing freely and surrendering to the thrilling stupors of wine. In the background, a young man reaches out for the attendant to replenish his beverage, and the servant grins with the jubilation of a Frans Hals sitter and the superficial, domestic levity found in John Currin’s figuration.
The Servant also bespeaks Toor’s exploration of the European tradition and his own South Asian origins. Toor has long sought to expose and interrogate the brewing tensions between East and West, crafting a new visual language sung by the voices of the oppressed: “I like for the characters in my painting to move between vulnerability and empowerment. I like foolish, marionette-like figures that evoke empathy as immigrants crossing borders, but they also have agency and dignity: things that have not been traditionally associated with our faces and bodies in painting” (S. Toor, quoted in N. Gupta, “Pakistani-origin, New York-based artist Salman Toor wants to paint a world where the East and West harmonise”, GQ India, 12 March 2020). Beautifully, Toor’s whimsical, painterly style unifies a consideration of two worlds: West and East; rich and poor; those who drink and those who serve.

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