‘It’s Like Coming Back Full Circle’: Watch Artist Salman Toor Prepare to Hang His Dreamlike Paintings at the Frick

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Salman Toor's Emerald Green." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

What does it feel like to see your paintings rub shoulders with historical masterpieces at the Frick? Ask the Brooklyn-based artist Salman Toor was one of a lucky few to have his painting Museum Boys (2021) exhibited alongside several of Vermeer’s genre scenes as part of the Frick’s year-long Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters program in 2021.

Now, his works are being in exhibited in a museum setting once again, but this time as part of a solo exhibition “No Ordinary Love” at Rose Art Museum, part of Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. The show opened last week and runs through February 11, 2024.

Appearing in an episode from Art21’s New York Close Up series, Toor welcomed viewers into his studio to learn more about how is practice celebrates everyday moments of queer joy and his love of the “glamorous” color emerald green.

He took the chance to reflect on his artistic journey since moving from his home country of Pakistan to the U.S. to start a BFA at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2002. “It was a complete transformation in my life,” Toor recalled. “It was ok to be gay. I was getting into European art history for the first time.”

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Salman Toor’s Emerald Green.” © Art21, Inc. 2021.

Of the opportunity to see his own canvas hanging among the greats at the Frick, Toor said: “Being from a post-colonial country where the encounter with Europe changed and transformed that region, it’s kind of like coming back full circle. It feels really important and poetic.”

In Toor’s paintings, figures inhabit a luridly colored, dreamlike realm that only partially resembles our own. These hazy, painterly apparitions might engage in an intimate pillow fight, enjoy the convivial mood of a candle lit dinner party, or find themselves tightly packed into the backseat of a taxi.

“The paintings are a reflection of most of the conversations that I have with my friends,” said Toor. “Queer friendships, about young femme guys involved or esconced in cosmopolitan culture.” Reflecting on his experiences “growing up as a femme boy in a mostly homophobic culture,” he concluded unapologetically that the paintings can be almost “annoying free” in their celebration of everyday pleasures.

In the video, Toor presents one 2019 painting where he evoked the late hour of a nocturnal get together between three men at an apartment by depicting the scene in a rich shade of green. He was immediately taken with its defamiliarizing but eye-catching effects, and green would quickly come to dominate Toor’s palette. “There’s something glamorous about emerald green. I wanted to explore that color for a while.”

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Salman Toor’s Emerald Green.” © Art21, Inc. 2021.

The surreal hue can imbue otherwise lively scenes with a mystical ambiguity and even, sometimes, an unexpected darkness. “The freedoms that we all take for granted here are pretty vulnerable,” Toor mused. “The paintings are peppered with nightmare scenarios that are based on anxieties and the movement between being an empowered new person in this city but also moments of disempowerment and maybe even humiliation.”

In Museum Boys, figures inhabit an allegorical space and various elements reference the Western canon, starting from vaguely classical stone statues to the washed out but stylish seventeenth-century costume of the figure on the left and, finally, a urinal reminiscent of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and the onset of modern art. This sits in a glass vitrine atop an inexplicable, surreal heap of objects and floating body parts that could be read as the spoils of empire. The soaring monolith in the background is an Islamic tombstone.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series “New York Close Up” below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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