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Toor painting Bar Boy
Salman Toor’s ‘Bar Boy’ (2019)

Salman Toor’s ‘Bar Boy’ (2019), oil on canvas


A good many figurative paintings these days seem to aspire to being cover illustrations for the New Yorker magazine. They have the kind of benign, politely progressive, op-ed flavor that hardly any educated urbanite can resist—a perfect match for the magazine’s covers, which have evolved over the decades from pictures of tweedy, upper-middle-class pleasures to, for lack of a better term, a persistent social conscience.

That’s not a bad thing, for either the periodical (as a subscriber, I await each week’s punchy premier pictorial), or today’s figurative painting—at least when it’s not strident, self-congratulatory, or mawkish. The work of Salman Toor —a Pakistani-American painter born in 1983 who depicts the lives of (in the words of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s press materials) “young, queer Brown men residing between New York City and South Asia”—is an exception to these debilities. Mr. Toor’s work is modestly original, deftly done, poignant, and—by its very existence and the Whitney’s giving it museum exposure in the free, ground-floor lobby gallery—evidence of hope for imperfect humanity.

“Salman Toor: How Will I Know,” a show of 15 oil paintings ranging in size from a little over a foot to more than four feet on a side, depicts young gay men—Mr. Toor and his friends—at home in groups and in pairs, in clubs, intimately alone, and, occasionally, in perilous situations with the police. The exhibition is Mr. Toor’s first museum solo show.

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