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Male artist sitting on the floor working on a painting
Male artist sitting on the floor working on a painting

Salman Toor in his studio. Still from the Art21 segment New York Close Up. Director: Adam Golfer. Editor: Lorena Alvarado. Cinematography: Jake Robbins and Adam Golfer. Assistant Camera: Sofie Kjorum Austlid.

How does a painter put freedom and vulnerability on the same canvas?

In a light-filled Bushwick studio, painter Salman Toor calls his father to let him know that “one of the best things that’s ever going to happen, ever” is on the horizon. Toor is at work on a new figurative painting, Museum Boys (2021), to be presented alongside canvases by Johannes Vermeer at Frick Madison in New York City. The painting is the latest in the artist’s alternately tender and comic exploration of his own highly cultured queer community, imagining moments of quiet intimacy as well as scenes of public violence and repression.

Moving from his home country of Pakistan to the United States in 2002, the artist had his first experience in an openly gay community while also coming under the influence of Western figurative art traditions like Dutch Golden Age painting. Working on multiple small canvases at the the same time, Toor paints images of queer sociality: “femme” and fashionable young men dancing together in living rooms, gathering at bars, and grooming before mirrors. Many of the works are colored in a signature emerald green, evoking for Toor the nocturnal glamor and fantasy of a freely gay life, and often contain what the artist slyly calls “fag puddles,” offered as “heaps of objects and tubular body parts.” Toor’s phrasing is an apt description of the central figure depicted in Museum Boys, who lies in a vitrine with a urinal, a high heel, and other more ambiguous objects strewn over their sleeping body. Both “fabulous, and a bit pathetic,” the tragicomic figure is rendered with the same tender, light touch and cartoonish forms the artist uses throughout his works, mirroring his own emotional identification with—and critical distance from—the figures he paints.

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