Salman Toor, 4 Guests, 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christies in New York. © Salman Toor;

‘Between cultures’: 10 things to know about Salman Toor

An introduction to one of the rising stars of contemporary art whose figurative paintings explore the complexities of identity

Through airport security lines, apartment dance scenes, city street corners, selfie sessions and barroom gatherings, Salman Toor brings us into the green-tinged world of his painted protagonists. Known for figurative depictions of contemporary queer life, Toor has become one of the most talked-about artists of the moment. 

On 17 November 2022, Toor’s 4 Guests will be offered in Christie’s 21st Century Evening sale. The proceeds from the work, which has been donated by the artist, will benefit CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and their emergency flood relief efforts in Pakistan. 

Since its founding in 2010 by Sean Penn and Ann Lee, CORE has been dedicated to serving communities in crisis across the globe. To date, Christie’s has helped raise over $4 million for CORE through the sale of artwork donated directly by contemporary artists. 

Learn more about this acclaimed contemporary artist below.

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  • Toor was born in Lahore, Pakistan

Salman Toor was born in 1983 in Lahore, Pakistan, in what he has previously described as ‘a rather conservative environment.’ Toor attended an all-boys high school, where he was often bullied for being too effeminate. He took refuge in the arts room, where he met lifelong friends who supported his love of drawing and painting.

Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christies in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie's in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
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  • He now lives and works in New York City

After high school, Toor attended Ohio Wesleyan University, graduating in 2006 with a BFA in painting and drawing. He moved from Ohio to New York City, later graduating from the Pratt Institute with an MFA in painting. He now lives in the East Village and works from his studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

New York City is a frequent setting for his paintings, which often explore the complexities of urban living.

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  • Many of his paintings depict scenes of contemporary queer life

Through bar scenes, apartment gatherings, portrayals of friends watching television and tense depictions of police encounters, Toor illustrates the everyday experience of contemporary queer living. 

Blurring the lines between fiction and memoir, he presents a nuanced view of the queer experience, including both ‘empowerment and humiliation,’ as he said in an interview with them. In this way, Toor steers clear of romanticizing contemporary queer life, instead offering a complex and truthful telling, evident in both the warm scenes of camaraderie as well as the dark depictions of danger and discrimination. 

Toor also challenges masculine tropes. Unlike the well-built characters in works by artists like Charles Demuth and Paul Cadmus, he paints slim, gangly men. Affectionately referred to as ‘sissies’ by Toor, they are a celebration of another kind of beauty.

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  • His oeuvre is also dedicated to including brown bodies in the art historical canon

The protagonists who appear throughout Toor’s oeuvre are often young men like him — slender, South Asian men rendered with a cartoonish edge. They are portrayed lying in bed, dancing with friends or overseeing a puppy playdate. We come to recognise these figures as stand-ins for Toor and his friends, brown bodies embedded within the canvas.

‘In New York, I see myself proliferating the stories of brown bodies, of assimilation, of belonging, of rituals that unite and divide us,’ Toor said in an interview with Polychrome Mag. By including these figures in his paintings, Toor is challenging the exclusionary bias of the Western art historical canon, but also inserting brown bodies into these privileged spaces.

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  • He is greatly influenced by the Old Masters

For many years, Toor rejected modern art. Instead, he was drawn to the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age, as well as the Baroque and Rococo. Art history, he has said, became a way to engage with the unfamiliar environment of the West. He mined the styles of the past for insights into his present. 

Armed with a deep well of knowledge, Toor weaves classical references into his work while also updating traditional subject matter. In Toor’s oeuvre, the female odalisque becomes a man reclining on his bed, his phone angled down for a selfie, while the Madonna and Child is transformed into a mother reading to her two children, the background flecked with fantastical imagery. 

Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christies in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie's in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
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  • Toor also pulls heavily from Eastern and Western cultures

Beyond the Old Masters, Toor’s art historical references are vast and numerous. He is just as likely to include an allusion to Edouard Manet as he is a Persian miniaturist. Once describing himself as ‘living between cultures’ in an interview with Bomb Magazine, Toor looks to bridge these influences as well as explore the dichotomies between them. 

Echoes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec appear in the tinted interior lighting while the multiple perspectives of certain scenes are a direct nod to the Indian painter Nainksukh. Toor cites other influences, too: the Mughal miniaturist Abu al-Hasan, French-American painter Nicole Eisenman and Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil. In drawing on these diverse influences, Toor further explores the idea of living ‘in between’.

‘In New York, I see myself proliferating the stories of brown bodies, of assimilation, of belonging, of rituals that unite and divide us’ — Salman Toor
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  • One of Toor’s signature colours is a phosphorescent emerald green

Some artists are closely associated to a specific colour: Pablo Picasso and blue, Phillip Guston and pink, Joseph Mallord William Turner and yellow. For Toor, that colour is green. He began to experiment with the colour in 2019, drawn to the enigmatic properties of the rich, emerald hue. In an interview with the New York Times, Toor described the colour as ‘alluring but also poisonous’. 

Green enhances the fantastical element of Toor’s work. It is a versatile colour, one that is both hot and cold, glamorous and noxious. It lends a nocturnal sensibility to his paintings, bathing his scenes in the flickering interior lighting of a bar or apartment. ‘Most importantly,’ Toor told Bomb Magazine about the colour, ‘I like that it’s not a sentimental colour.’

Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christies in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie's in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
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  • Toor uses fashion to signify moods and challenge conceptions

Fashion can be empowering or degrading, display prosperity or poverty, and is a visible mode of self-expression. This is not lost on Toor. Throughout his paintings, he incorporates these outward details to drive a narrative. Feather boas, pendant necklaces, painted nails, braided hair and patterned shirts — all the sartorial choices we make communicate something to the world, and Toor uses this to communicate to the viewer. 

He also uses fashion to marry Eastern and Western influences and blur time and place. A man in a plumed hat — a nod perhaps to the Dutch Golden Age — is seen alongside an individual in a kurta. A receding figure in a taqiyah cap occupies the same canvas as a man in a bomber jacket. 

But beyond the details of an outfit, Toor understands that, above all, fashion is a method of belonging. It signals our place in the world, and whether we are part of or apart from the community we inhabit.

Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christies in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Salman Toor, 4 Guests (detail), 2019. Oil on canvas. 39⅛ x 43⅛ in (99.4 x 109.5 cm). Sold for $856,800 in 21st Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie's in New York. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
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  • Much of his work depicts dualities

Through moments pulled from the everyday, Toor expresses the conflicting dualities of contemporary life. A phone or laptop screen — instruments of connectivity and estrangement — become a reminder of the split lives many of us lead in person versus online. 

In indoor party scenes and outside public settings, Toor plays with the idea of our public and private selves. In the safety of interior rooms, we witness a warm contentment between friends. They dance, watch television, lean together on couches. Outside, however, they are exposed and victimised — searched at airport security, stopped by the police and terrorised on playgrounds. 

In his references to Eastern and Western cultures and allusions to art history, Toor is depicting dualities. He is contrasting one culture to the next and adapting historic motifs to modern settings. In bridging these distinct elements, he is once again probing the in-between.

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  • His star is on the rise

In 2020, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York mounted the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. Entitled How Will I Know, the show was met with universal praise and shot Toor into art world stardom.

Since then, he has remained highly sought-after. In May 2022, he opened another solo museum exhibition entitled No Ordinary Love at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show will travel to three additional venues through 2024: the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida, the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii and the Rose Art Museum at Brandies University in Massachusetts. He is also featured in the 2022 Biennale de Lyon and has another solo exhibition opening at Beijing's M Woods museum in December 2022.

As he continues his explorations in paint, Toor’s unique blend of dichotomies is sure to continue to captivate.