Slender, agile figures, with wistful expressions, engaged in unremarkable activities in very particular settings. Vigorous brushmarks and sensuous paint. Passionate color, now intense and delectable, now dulled down and a little murky. Diaristic implied narratives, enacted by multiple characters. Ambiguous, contemplative, pared-down images, with everything intensified by animated contours. Energetically brushed expanses that seem to press upon the protagonists of the elusive dramas. We begin to recognize a narrow-faced, handsome, dark-bearded fellow who appears and reappears, in different guises, and soon realize that he and many of the other figures share an exaggeratedly long nose, as if they were all members of the same family. Pinocchio? Fierce. Playful. Elegant expressionism? Mannerism, wrenched into the twenty-first century?

These are first impressions of “Salman Toor: How Will I Know,” the young, Pakistani-born artist’s first solo museum show, part of the emerging artists’ program at the Whitney Museum.1 (The title comes from a song that the artist says he likes dancing to.) Organized by Christopher Y. Lew, a curator at the Whitney, and Ambika Trasi, curatorial assistant, the exhibition brings together fifteen of Toor’s recent paintings on plywood, made between 2018 and 2020. We learn that Toor, born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1983, has an mfa from the Pratt Institute and now lives mostly in New York. He paints, we are told, imagined “intimate views of young, queer Brown men in New York and South Asia,” and considers the figures who populate his paintings “to be fictional versions of himself and his friends.”

Four Friends (2019, private collection), the first work we encounter, states the principal theme of “How Will I Know” and announces Toor’s strengths as a provocative storyteller, colorist, and manipulator of paint. Two lean young men dance ecstatically in a sparsely furnished, eerily lit living room. Two others, one with a mop of dirty blond curls, cuddle on a sofa, cell phone and drink in hand. A flood of urgently brushed, aqueous green dominates the setting. The paint sits up on the hard surface of the plywood. The inflections of the robust application slow down our exploration of the green surface, yet, despite this nod at painterly painting, the agitated green-ness holds everything together the way the subtly modulated, untroubled field of red does Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio. The delicious pink trousers of the central, upright dancer anchor the entire painting, making us take into account his pink neckerchief and then follow the many notes of dull yellow that flicker through the painting: socks, shirt, a lamp base, skin tones.

Nothing is overtly Matissean about Four Friends, other than the sheer extent of the green—not the paint handling, nor the play of contours, nor the theme and variation of relationships among individual elements that knit so many of the French master’s works together—but we soon become aware that we are reading Four Friends just as we read The Red Studio. We slowly work our way around the fictive interior, taking inventory of furniture, a bookshelf, drawings on the wall, shadows, lamps, wine glasses, the lit windows of a building across the street, screened by the bare branches of a tree, seen through a window framed by a string of lights, and more. We focus on details of clothing, cataloguing shorts, modishly torn jeans, and decorative stitching. We itemize socks, shoes, and bare feet, and make note of sideburns, exuberant curls, skin color from rich brown to pasty pale, body hair, jewelry.

This close looking heightens our awareness of how Toor’s touch responds to the contours of his imagery. We are captured by the flurries of bold strokes surrounding the dancers—suggestions that their movements made their surroundings vibrate—and find ourselves concentrating not on the imagery, but the fact of paint and gesture once again. The muscular brushmarks and coiling rhythms make us think about Toor’s chosen ancestors among his modernist predecessors: Vincent van Gogh, perhaps Chaim Soutine, and, more recently, the New Leipzig School—think Neo Rauch, absent the bombast and pretentiousness.

But the tasty color and sinuous, slim figures also have echoes of Florentine Mannerism, especially Pontormo at his most luminous and extravagant. I kept remembering that wonderful little installation featuring his recently cleaned Carmignano Visitation at the Morgan Library & Museum two years ago, a glorious painting notable for its tight bouquet of four standing women—the Virgin, Saint Elizabeth, and two attendants—all swathed in gorgeous silks: pink, teal, mint green, orange.These high-minded art historical associations notwithstanding, there’s also an undercurrent of cartoon-ish humor that seasons Toor’s images like a squeeze of lemon, or, to change metaphors, that are as impossible to ignore as the bass of music from a neighboring apartment—or from the speakers on the window sill of Four Friends.

The most compelling paintings in “How Will I Know,” even the most economical, share this combination of seriousness and playfulness, material richness and implied narrative. They depend upon a slightly disconcerting tug of war between specific details and open-endedness, with a bracing touch of acid. There’s a lot to look at, even in the most simplified compositions, such as the deceptively straightforward Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug (2019, Whitney) or Two Men with Vans, Tie, and Bottle (2019, private collection). In these, we are confronted by half-length, narrow figures linked by that family resemblance we have learned to recognize. Slope-shouldered and as distinctively clothed as the men in Four Friends, they dispassionately contemplate their meager possessions, spread out before them on bare tabletops. These imaginary self-portraits, we learn, are inspired by the often demeaning treatment of Middle Eastern and South Asian men traveling abroad, seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous customs official who authorizes entry or pulls travelers aside for further screening. Whether or not we know what provoked the paintings, Toor’s figures, in this series, seem vulnerable, fragile, almost engulfed by the roughly stroked backgrounds. The muted, grayed-down palette reinforces the mood.

Two large figure groups, Tea (2020, private collection) and Bar Boy (2019, Whitney), are among the most ambitious works in the show, gatherings of self-contained characters who share the space with Toor’s alter ego, presented as the Other: vertical, thin, compressed—a point of stillness and seeming isolation in complex compositions. In Tea, a family group sits at a table, crowded to the left side of the panel, while the standing Toor figure remains apart, arms at his sides, clad in artfully torn jeans that we recall from Four Friends. In an audio clip on the Whitney’s website, Toor says that he imagined the scene as an encounter between a conservative group and someone “emancipated” but distanced, with the lovingly painted still life objects on the table, including some opulent fruit, becoming surrogates for the unspoken.

Salman Toor, Bar Boy, 2019, Oil on wood, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.  © Salman Toor.

In the all-male crowd in Bar Boy, lurid light reveals the family resemblance many of them share, as well as dramatic differences—here a few blonds stand out by contrast—as they cluster together or perch on stools, ignore one another, embrace, or even sleep. In the center of the painting, that now-familiar slope-shouldered young man, wearing a fetching broad-brimmed hat and an earring, stands apart from the others, as if dividing the room, lighting his own face with a cell phone. The rest of the figures, absorbed in their own encounters or self-contained, ignore him. Prompted by the long noses, those of us raised on Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of the puppet who wanted to be a real boy start thinking about the notably flexible, sometimes schematic, long-nosed figures as marionettes, an association that Toor himself supports in an audio clip. As in Four Friends, Tea and Bar Boy are dominated by an all-enveloping expanse of green, a color that Toor says he finds “inviting, glamorous, and poisonous.” That’s an excellent summation of the affect of the bar painting; the insistent green of the interior is at once verdant, other-worldly, and toxic.

Other paintings are more anecdotal and occasionally more light-hearted. Some take as their points of departure figures on a stoop, a puppy play date, and welcoming a visitor, while still others address such challenging notions as harassment by venal police and conceptions of beauty. An enigmatic (green) picture of the interior of a closet, lit by a bare bulb, with a single hanger on the rod, teeters on the edge of the sinister with its pile of body parts—are they disarticulated mannequins or marionettes, or something dreadful?—and a pink-feather boa.

Two small male nudes read as sketchy, brushy versions of those designed-to-titillate Rococo paintings of plump, rosy (female) nudes disporting themselves on rumpled bedding; here, however, the protagonist is a thin, dark-skinned male and the props a cell phone and a laptop, rather than a silky lapdog. While it’s difficult to tell from the limited selection, the show and the works on the Whitney’s website suggest that Toor’s more recent paintings are more inventively constructed, more ambiguous, and less anecdotal than those made a few years ago.

Salman Toor, Nightmare, 2020, Oil on plywood, private collection.

One of the most compelling of the works in “How Will I Know,” Nightmare (2020, private collection), announces a feeling tone entirely different from any of the others. The various leafy greens we’ve encountered elsewhere have faded to a near-monochrome ominous gray-ochre with sour yellow overtones. In a shallow space against a rough brick wall, two men, one standing, one kneeling, watch a naked man writhing on the sidewalk before them. Their clothing and skin tones lock them into the bricks, a connection emphasized by their ample shadows. By contrast, the skin of the supine man, arms extended upwards, is a warm brown; he is further differentiated from the beholders by a wash of pale light. The scene seems to be taking place in the present, but the pose and placement of the naked man make it impossible not to think of the countless images of the Conversion of Saul, dazzled by divine light and fallen from his horse, transformed into the disciple Paul on the road to Damascus. I kept equating the naked man in Nightmare with the similarly posed, clothed Saul, imprisoned by the legs of his horse, in Caravaggio’s stunning painting of that fraught moment in Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome.

Art world mores change. For some years, only the artist and those with identical backgrounds, experience, and predilections were thought capable of accurately “unpacking” the work of art. The rest of us were supposed to rely on the artist’s often lengthy written explications. Apparently, works of art were not trusted to speak for themselves, nor were ordinary viewers assumed to be capable of grasping meaning and intention without extensive guidance. Admittedly, given the hermetic, self-referential nature of a lot of work made at the time, these were often accurate assessments. I recall a particularly opaque Robert Gober show with an immense volume of commentary, bigger than a Manhattan phone directory in pre-digital days, open on a lectern; otherwise-baffled viewers were supposed to study the book for instruction and direction, if they had a couple of hours to spare. More recently, as the outcry over Dana Schutz’s tribute to Emmet Till revealed, it’s the artist who must share the ethnos, culture, and all the rest of it associated with the subject he or she chooses to address, no matter how obliquely. Making work stimulated by anything other than the artist’s own history and inheritance, it appears, is not permitted, even though carrying this notion to its logical conclusion disbars the entire Western canon. Titian, a Christian Venetian, should never have painted those scenes of Greek myths.

Yet that is not to undervalue the resonance of art that seems to reflect deep feeling and the particulars of its maker—work such as Toor’s paintings in “How Will I Know,” which are obviously informed by lived experience. As a young, gay, South Asian man who divides his time between New York and Pakistan, he can’t be accused, as Schutz was, of making unauthorized use of a subject that doesn’t belong to him. But if the qualifications required of the viewer still apply, a different question arises. Am I, as a not-young, straight, white, female, native New Yorker (albeit one who frequented her share of equivocal bars with her gay friends and attended their raucous parties) allowed to voice an opinion about Toor’s work? Despite those instructive experiences, am I missing coded references? Are the (to my mind, enriching) art-historical connections that close looking at Toor’s paintings suggested to me simply a product of my Eurocentric education and expertise, or are they evidence of insight into the artist’s intentions?

Numerous possibilities are suggested by “The Self as Cypher: Salman Toor’s Narrative Paintings,” an essay by Ambika Trasi, the show’s co-curator, available on the Whitney’s website, along with audio clips of the artist discussing three of the paintings on show (which I recommend). I take some comfort in the fact that “Salman Toor: How Will I Know” is installed in the gallery on the Whitney’s ground floor that is always free and open to the public, a location that suggests a desire for the widest possible audience, not a specialized group of viewers. In any event, the best of Toor’s work seems to me to be so strong that it requires no special pleading.

1 “Salman Toor: How Will I Know” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on November 13, 2020, and remains on view through April 4, 2021.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 44
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