‘It’s Fabulous But Also Pathetic’: Watch Salman Toor Pair His Paintings of Queer Life With Vermeers for an Unlikely Show 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.

The Frick Collection is known as a jewel box of a museum for its intimately scaled collection of 18th-century fine furniture, canvases by Vermeer and Fragonard, and Limoges enamel that inspires a hushed reverence. Therefore, it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to come across the work of Salman Toor, the Pakistan-born artist whose paintings often center around his life as a queer man living in New York City.

But Toor’s work is now on view at the Frick, in a delightful juxtaposition that’s part of the ongoing exhibition “Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters,” on view through 2022. Toor’s painting Museum Boys (2021) is in dialogue with Johannes Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1657) and Mistress and Maid (ca. 1666-7).

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the series New York Close Up, Toor describes the experience of having his work appear alongside the 17th-century Dutch master as “probably the best thing that’s ever going to happen, ever.”

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

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

In the video, Toor is seen at work in his Brooklyn studio, his walls lined with canvases and art history books. He sits on the floor or stands in front of a larger painting, considering each composition. The painting Museum Boys is bathed in an absinthe green that Toor returns to frequently, and features a museum guard and visitor, each partially clad in mock Dutch garb as seen in Vermeer’s work, smiling coyly at one another in a museum gallery.

As in many of the artist’s works, the main figure is based on a friend, is pictured without pants, and is missing one shoe and sock, looking more like someone returning from an all-night party than a museum goer.

A vitrine appears in the center of the room with a high-heeled shoe and Duchamp’s urinal. “I think of them as ‘fag puddles,'” Toor says. “They’re sort of heaps of objects and tubular body parts… just balls and just feet and it’s hairy.” The strange amalgamation at the center of the painting, which in turn is in the center of one of America’s preeminent art museums, is a nod both to the artist’s sexual freedom and a reference to his native country’s colonial past.

Growing up in India, “where the encounter with Europe changed and transformed” every aspect of the region, Toor’s tongue-in-cheek response to the great works of Western art is a recognition of the colonial past that lurks in the corners of the museum. The installation at the center of his painting, surrounded by sexually liberated men encountering culture, Toor says, required him to go into a “surreal space, when I was going to show it in the Vermeer room at the Frick.” He added: “it’s sort of fabulous, but also pathetic.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. Salman Toor’s painting is on view at the Frick as part of “Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters” through January 2022.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. 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.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.