The subject of a recent critically acclaimed retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, Salmon Toor is a prodigious talent and master of emotive figuration. Best Friends is a superlative example of the artist’s ability to create atmospheric and enigmatic narratives from a careful blend of real-world experience and personal introspection. Drawing upon his own life, Toor comments on his background as a Queer man growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, and his eventual move to New York City. The protagonists populating his richly painted canvases are often lithe, brown-skinned men who inhabit a contemporary world rendered with the brushes of the past. Speaking about his influences and his intense study of the white Western artists strewn about the canon, Toor notes, “The floridness and vividness of their styles appeals to me. The overcrowded Baroque compositions of Rubens, the dignity of the subjects in Van Dyck, the lushness of romance and sensuality in Watteau, the decorative brilliance of Veronese. It is a pre-industrial way of looking, a foreign language of picture making” (S. Toor quoted in J. Alvares, “In Conversation with Salman Toor,” ArtNow, October 2017). If not for the occasional laptop or smartphone held by one of the characters throughout his oeuvre, one might be forgiven for thinking Toor was living in another century. However, the way his steady strokes coax out a painterly nostalgia while also speaking to today’s issues is truly noteworthy.
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.”
[Toor’s] delicate, caressing brush strokes and intriguing textures are somewhat too large for the images. So they remain staunchly visible and comforting, conveying crucial details and capturing the telling facial expressions at which the artist excels.”
Set in a warm interior that exudes comfort and solace as much as Van Gogh’s bedroom exudes unease and anxiety, Best Friends is a quiet scene. Two figures sit at a window in a moment of reverie. Both individuals are lanky, with coifs of dark, wavy hair and a week’s worth of stubble. They wear light tops and dark pants, and the man on the left wears red shoes. The central figure, his elbow in the windowsill and his hand holding a small white cigarette, seems to stare out into the darkening night with an air of contemplation. His companion sits cross-legged on a stool and faces him, bringing a glass of red wine up to his lips. The room itself is spare, with only the two chairs, a small table with a tea set and empty glass, and a high shelf in the back with more glassware and a bottle. A shaded lamp behind the duo casts a buttery yellow hue over the goings-on. Toor’s ability to render such scenes with a mixture of detailed precision and nostalgia-inducing stylization is on full display here. The faces capture human emotion perfectly and each button and shoelace is visible, but the brushwork is visible and various elements threaten to slide toward us on the dramatically raked floor. Roberta Smith noted, on the occasion of Toor’s 2020 institutional debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art: “Another key element tying Mr. Toor’s compelling narratives together is touch. His delicate, caressing brush strokes and intriguing textures are somewhat too large for the images. So they remain staunchly visible and comforting, conveying crucial details and capturing the telling facial expressions at which the artist excels.” (R. Smith, “Salman Toor, a Painter at Home in Two Worlds”, New York Times, December 23, 2020). Toor’s unmistakable style blends a personal narrative with a brush well-studied in the art historical canon.
Central to Toor’s practice is the evolution of his surroundings and the cross-cultural inspirations he has found along the way. Moving from Pakistan to the American Midwest for college, and then to New York, the artist infuses his work with myriad subjects and nuances gleaned from his journey. His concerted study of the Western canon and mastery of past methods has gradually given way to his own personal style and canvases filled with people with whom he can empathize. “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, March 12, 2020). Looking through art history’s lens, Toor paints scenes of Queer contemporary life populated by figures that have been traditionally overlooked. The subjects run the gamut from nervous bar scenes to boisterous parties and solitary figures to intimate moments like Best Friends. In all these tableaux, a focus on creating meaningful connections is key. Toor is adept at pulling the viewer in with his illustrative finesse and keeping us there with subjects rife with emotional depth.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).