If you go to Salman Toor’s Instagram page and scroll mindlessly for a while, you’ll eventually come to a painting posted in May of 2019. It is just as heady and seductive as the rest of the ones that pepper his grid and depicts a young mustachioed man with his head cast back upon plush, billowing pillows. The soft, brown contours of his nude form are interrupted by coarse, dark hair that erupts from his armpits and the space between his thighs. The man’s eyes are closed, his lips gently parted in an expression of quiet ecstasy. The glint of a golden earring complements the chain that dangles across his throat and the bracelets glimmering upon his limp wrist. The presence of an open apple computer in the foreground reminds us that this is not the work of some long-dead European Impressionist master. That, together with a string of fairly lights twinkling in the background, and the fact that the subject is queer-coded and not white.
The comments below the painting are fairly universal in their admiration. “Beautiful brushstrokes” one reads; another exclaims, “Your work is so pretty oh my god,” while still more accounts express the depth of their feeling with a smattering of red emoji hearts.
One comment, nestled casually amongst the others, reads, “Your work Remember me Italian classic painter Correggio.” As I read this last fragment, a flash of irritation stole through me, against my will. Why should Toor’s work have to recall that of a European master to be deemed great or alluring? Just as quickly, another fleeting feeling of angst rose up in me, this time at my policing of another person’s enthusiasm for a piece that I too adored.
After all, the account that made the Correggio comment would hardly be alone in doing so. There are a number of far more high profile and official news outlets claiming the same thing, with equivalent zeal. An article in The Observer asserts the abundant similarities between the “social scenes that French Impressionist masters such as Renoir and Manet would create,”1 and the gripping, green backlit studies that have won Toor some of his 98.3K followers. Roberta Smith wrote, in The New York Times, that “Upon entering the show [Toor’s first institutional New York viewing, “How Will I Know?”], my first thought was of intimate surfaces of Rococo painting — François Boucher and Fragonard.”2
And to be sure, Toor’s works are in dynamic, pressing dialogue with many painters who have come before him. Frantz Fanon put it best when he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that “Decolonization, we know, is an historical process: in other words, it can only be understood, it can only find its significance and become self coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance”3 The maritime lighting, that queer, green translucence which permeates a number of pieces, from the underwater intimacy of Doron, Oil on Canvas, to the nocturnal hum of The Bar on East 13th, to the anxious horror of The Beating, calls to mind the decaying virescent hues of Van Gogh, although Toor’s green light places us squarely in an age of cellphone screens, modern alienation, and queer visibility.
The frozen drama and emotional cacophony of paintings like The Nightmare and Man With Face Creams and Phone Plug summon up memories of Goya and Caravaggio and other baroque prodigies. Perhaps there is something to this: that great art can simultaneously recall a thousand associations, and explode them all at once—an annihilation which proves, somehow, generative.
Because here is the immense power of Salman Toor: in placing queer people of color at the heart of paintings that could be hanging in any major museum in the world, calling to mind all the Modernist greats, Toor joins artists like Harmonia Rosales, Kehinde Wiley, Zanele Muholi, and Kelvin Burzon in highlighting what is missing from those museums in the first place. The artistry of these paintings makes previously erased histories, experiences, and modes of embodiment achingly visible, and the unwavering intimacy of these scenes with their uncanny relatability makes them more compelling than their white-washed counterparts. The knowledge of narratives erased lends itself to melancholy—to a kind of green seepage that hints at dreams deferred and psychoanalytic strife. It also, miraculously, creates a unique space for QTPOC joy—a joy that comes with the sensation of being recognized on canvas, in thick oil and careful, visible brushstrokes.
Salman Toor was born in Lahore, Pakistan in the early eighties, although he would migrate to the United States for university. Attending first Ohio Wesleyan University, and later the Pratt Institute in New York, but never abandoning his roots, the young artist was uniquely set up to become a kind of vessel for the great artistic nuances of both cultures. But Toor’s work is not merely a hybrid creature, an uncanny being that straddles two divergent ways of being and perceiving. No, his work is a kind of alchemical synthesis that yields entirely new and unexpected results.
In Takeout, two figures sit casually upon a couch, lifting takeout boxes and plates heavy with noodles close to their lips as a period drama plays in the background on a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. As with all of Toor’s pieces, there is an intimacy here, a warmth that extends from the painted world into our own. The multiple frames through which each aspect of the painting is viewed offer a unique position of analysis, a multiplicity of vantages from which to consider all of art history in a single bound. There is at once the square of the television, which contains two white women in archaic dress, clutching candles in the dark, and then, the lighter, airier openness of the couple eating takeout in a more modern age. But rather than being a jarring reminder of the chasm of time between the current moment and the black and white of history, Toor showcases a kind of aesthetic continuity– establishing a rare and vibrant connection between artist and viewer, foreign and familiar experience. All of this, within yet another frame, the borders of the painting itself, which we the viewer look into, perhaps through yet another, virtual border: that of our phone or computer screen.
To confront a Toor then is to reckon with the nature of art history itself. And simultaneously, it is to imagine a vision of optimistic queer futurity that begins with recognition as a radical form of community building. From paintings of beleaguered South Asian folks worn out in airport security lines, to reconfigurations of queer non-binary folks caught in the heady desire of an embrace, Toor carves out a space for new and vivacious subjectivities that have long been hushed or glossed over.
Now that Toor has continued the arduous work of decolonizing Expressionist art, the question must become how the art critic decolonizes writings about that art. Perhaps, the answer has something to do with queering the art of criticism itself—utilizing democratic and accessible sources, from Instagram comments to Tumblr posts, alongside academic quotations. Or perhaps, there is something to making the mindful choice to compare emerging queer artists of color, not constantly to European masters, but to other geniuses regardless of race or creed. I am thinking now of two artists that Toor either consciously or unconsciously celebrates in his own pieces: Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhupen Khakar. Sher-Gil, an Indian-Hungarian painter known for her poignant depictions of everyday life and portraiture, left behind an astonishingly intimate collection of paintings to be experienced and analyzed. Despite her untimely death, she established herself as one of the predominant contributors to the Bengal Renaissance through her manipulation of light to unlock new levels of human expression and emotionality in paint. Later, Khakar’s use of vivacious color, surreal perspective, and democratic subject matter likewise established him as one of the leading contemporary artists of our time.
Here, we might insert the opening lines from Jose Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”4 Sleeping Boy is awash with that warm illumination—that alluring, hopeful potentiality.
1. José Esteban Muñoz, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, Nyong’o Tavia Amolo Ochieng’, and Ann Pellegrini. 2019. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press. 1.
2. Anni Irish. “Painter Salman Toor Depicts Contemporary Queer Life.” Observer. Observer, February 22, 2021. https://observer.com/2021/02/salman-toor-whitney-museum-queer-life/.
3. Roberta Smith. “Salman Toor, a Painter at Home in Two Worlds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/23/arts/design/salman-toor-whitney-museum.html.
4. Franz Fanon. 2021. The Wretched of the Earth. New York, USA: Grove Press. 2.
5. José Esteban Muñoz, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, Nyong’o Tavia Amolo Ochieng’, and Ann Pellegrini. 2019. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press. 1.