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Toor painting Man with Face Creams
Toor painting Man with Face Creams

Salman Toor, “Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug,” 2019

Past and present converge in Salman Toor’s paintings. With thick impasto and expressive brushwork Toor’s compositions can be read as rooted firmly in the history of painting, but the narratives are all his own and decidedly contemporary. Toor takes us into bars and to gatherings with friends, casts the gaze of airport security and captures intimate moments alone at home. While the works fit the genre of queer figuration, Toor’s paintings render a queerness never disentangled from racial and cultural identity, writes art historian Marina Molarsky-Beck. Reporting from New York, Molarsky-Beck considers some of Toor’s many references and asks, how do queer artists and artists of color reenvision the possibilities of figuration?

Salman Toor’s institutional debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York brings together a body of new paintings that sensitively treat questions of queer identity and diasporic belonging. The exhibition, which opened in November of 2020 after a lockdown-induced deferral, is entitled How Will I Know, in reference to Whitney Houston’s 1985 hit. From the jump, Toor summons the melancholia of romantic uncertainty (“How will I know if he really loves me?”), but also a humming sense of existential unease. Houston is, of course, a gay icon and her song a dancefloor staple – or it was, until the global pandemic snuffed out most of what we once knew as nightlife. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Toor remarked, “My work was already about isolation before COVID-19.”  Indeed, these are lonely paintings, even when they depict intimacy and its discontents: moments of encounter at the gay bar, smoke breaks on sidewalks, posing for nudes.

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