How Salman Toor Left the Old Masters Behind

How Salman Toor Left the Old Masters Behind

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Three weeks before Salman Toor’s “No Ordinary Love” opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art, on May 22nd, the twenty-six paintings in the exhibition were still in his Brooklyn studio, and the largest work, “Fag Puddle with Candle, Shoe and Flag,” rested against a pillar near the center of the room. Ninety-three inches high by ninety inches wide, it is the same size, Toor told me, as Anthony van Dyck’s “Rinaldo and Armida,” a Baroque painting that is in the museum’s permanent collection. Toor had been obsessed with this picture when he was an art student. He had painted “Fag Puddle” with the idea that it would be “in conversation” with “Rinaldo and Armida,” and, while his show is on view elsewhere at the museum, the two paintings will be facing each other on opposite walls of the same Old Master gallery.

“ ‘Rinaldo and Armida’ is based on a poem by Tasso, about the adventures of Christian soldiers in the Crusades,” Toor explained. It was typical of the Baroque, he added, full of bodies and tumult and weather conditions—“a storm coming, the sunset, a mermaid, and the spellbound kiss that’s about to happen between the sleeping soldier and Armida, an enchantress descending to seduce this guy and take him to an island of love where he’ll forget his duties as a crusader.” Toor’s painting, as he describes it, is “a pile of laundry filled with things from different parts of my imagination, things that, to me, sum up an exhaustive heap of greed and lust. I also wanted it to have a slightly dark humor.” “Fag Puddle” is predominantly green, with vivid details in yellow and red. Figurative but not realistic, it shows, in addition to the items in the title, a feather boa, an open book, a dildo, a disembodied foot, a head with a clown nose, a striped necktie, a hanging light bulb, a pearl necklace, a light-emitting iPhone on a tripod, and a man’s head face down in the groin of a nude, upside-down male figure. These unrelated images are painted with such panache and fluency that they seem to belong together. My immediate reaction was that this artist could paint anything and make me believe in it.

Toor is a newcomer to art-world stardom. Slim, dark-haired, and thirty-nine years old, he has a quiet self-confidence that puts him at ease with most people. He was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but he has lived mainly in New York since he graduated from the Pratt Institute, in 2009. In the early years of his career, he had little interest in modern art. He painted technically dazzling, contemporary versions of Old Master portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes, from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, and his pictures found ready buyers in Pakistan and in the United States. “I thought a lot of modern art was just crap—boring and deliberately depressing,” Toor told me. “In school, I had been fascinated by Renaissance art because of the basic thing it had mastered—the realism. I wanted to be as good as those painters.” He had also, independently, studied classical Indian painting—he loved the exquisite miniatures of the Mughal school, with their stylized renderings of princes and maidens in lush gardens—but European realism was the tradition that caught and held his interest. In 2012, for reasons that were not clear to him at the time, he began to experiment with simple, almost cartoon-like images of his friends in contemporary settings. He didn’t show these for several years, but he kept doing them now and then, and in 2015, when he put a group of them in an exhibition in New York, at Aicon Gallery, he realized that he was onto something. Toor’s breakthrough came in 2020, when the Whitney Museum showed fifteen of these works. The return of figurative art and storytelling, which was picking up momentum in the nineteen-nineties, took a new direction with Toor’s unabashed, queer subjectivity and its basis in the history of Western art.

Toor is one of those gifted souls who find drawing as natural and essential as talking. From the age of five, he drew constantly. His favorite subjects, borrowed from his mother’s fashion magazines, were pretty young women with flowing hair. “My aunt encouraged me to draw sports cars instead, so I drew a boxy, badly imagined vehicle with a girl’s head sticking out the window,” he recalls. “I was very, very femme growing up, and I often felt intimidated and ostracized.” He was the firstborn of three children in a well-to-do family in Lahore. His father, who owns a Honda dealership there, is tall, handsome, conservative, and emphatically masculine. His mother is a housewife, “very doting and cuddling,” Toor said. When Toor was fifteen, he tried to tell his parents that he was gay. “They didn’t accept that,” he told me. “They said, ‘You’re not developed yet, you just don’t know.’ ” Although both of them eventually came to terms with his sexuality, they did so, Toor said, more with tolerance than with understanding. Homosexual activity is a punishable offense in Pakistan. Although the law is not strictly observed, gay behavior in public can be dangerous, as Toor makes clear in his painting “Car Boys,” in which a uniformed policeman shines his flashlight into a stopped car with two young men in it. What gave him the courage to come out to his parents when he was fifteen? “I just felt like, yeah, I can do it,” he recalls. “I can do anything.”

At Aitchison College, a boys-only institution, built by the British when Pakistan was part of India and Britain ruled the subcontinent, Toor’s femininity made him the butt of teasing and bullying. Every day, students followed him down the halls, talking in high voices and imitating his swinging gait—“sashaying,” as he calls it. There were a few occasions when he was pushed around and roughed up, but nobody ever hated him, and things improved in the middle school at Aitchison, when his ability to draw brought him respect and admiration. “A lot of kids completely changed their mind about who I was,” he said. Older students asked him to make nude portraits of their imagined girlfriends. The whole school became aware of Toor when he turned sixteen and took the O-level exams—an imperial tradition (they’re now officially known as I.G.C.S.E.s)—and earned world distinction, scoring in the one-hundredth percentile in art. “Salman was prodigiously talented,” Komail Aijazuddin, one of his schoolmates, told me. “He knew light and shape in a way that was almost irritatingly intuitive.”

Art classes at Aitchison were optional for high schoolers, and few students took them. Toor signed up for every one that was available, and he spent most of his free time in the art room, drawing and painting. This was where he met the three boys who are still his closest friends—Aijazuddin, Ali Sethi, and Leo Kalyan. “I think we were all trying to protect Salman,” Sethi said. “He was the most vulnerable one, because he didn’t have any defense mechanisms. I was the tallest person in the class, I was a teacher-pleaser, but Salman was guileless. When boys made fun of him, he couldn’t fight back.”

Kalyan, who was born in London and lived there until he was eleven, when his family moved back to Lahore, recalls the art room as the one place in the school where the friends felt safe. “I used to call Salman Demi Moore, and he called me Kate Winslet,” he told me. “We were all made fun of for being girlie.” Kalyan was startled, though, when Toor told him and Sethi that he was gay. “My reaction was I’m not gay,” Kalyan said. “It was a couple of years before I could say out loud that I was. I was scared every single day at school. People would write stuff about us on the blackboard. The only refuge we had was the art room and each other. It’s a miracle that we were there together. Without Ali and Salman, there would be no me, and without me there would be no Ali and Salman. He was unafraid to be himself at a very young age.”

“It’s nice to sit down after a long day of sitting down.”

Cartoon by Liana Finck

Sethi’s father was an outspoken journalist and a publisher, whose criticism of the authoritarian government in Pakistan led to several jailings. He and his wife also collected art and had many art books in their house. This was where the four boys found Norman Mailer’s 1995 “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man,” which came as a revelation to them. “We read it together, and we copied things from it in the art room,” Toor recalls. (They were all bilingual in English and Urdu.) “That book brought a sense of deliciousness, a simplified idea of what an artist’s life was like.” More than a decade later, when Toor was starting to move beyond Old Master models, the monochrome twilight of Picasso’s Blue Period became a recurrent mood in his paintings.

All three of Toor’s friends were going to college in Europe or North America. Toor, who was expecting to go from Aitchison to the National College of Arts, in Lahore, persuaded his parents to let him apply to several American schools. Yale, Amherst, and Columbia turned him down (his hundredth percentile in O-level art wasn’t enough to offset less impressive results, two years later, in the A-level exams for physics and economics), but Ohio Wesleyan accepted him and offered a scholarship, and he arrived there in the fall of 2002. “The college is in a very small town, and there wasn’t anything like gay life there,” Toor recalls. “And I was totally fine with that. I had never been to the U.S., and for the first year I was just taking everything in.” Once, in his junior year, he was beaten up at a frat party, but over all he was happy, living in an on-campus, mixed-gender house he describes as the “hippie base.” He kept in touch with Sethi, who was at Harvard, and Aijazuddin, at New York University, and when he could afford it he made weekend trips to see them. Toor became more and more certain that New York, with its polyglot mix of cultures, was where he wanted to live.

Leo Kalyan earned his undergraduate degree in England, at King’s College London. Toor stayed with him when he went to London in the summer of 2004. He spent his days at the National Gallery and other museums, but his nights, he said, were “like a crash course in mainstream gay culture.” Kalyan, Sethi, Aijazuddin, and Toor were all dating, but they weren’t dating one another. This changed six years ago, when Sethi and Toor realized that they belonged together. Although they live in different New York apartments, the bond between them is very deep. “I knew I had found the person I wanted to be with for good,” Toor told me. They have all done well in the world. Aijazuddin, who became an artist and a writer, now lives chiefly in New York; Sethi and Kalyan are both singers and songwriters, well known for their innovations in traditional South Asian music. (Sethi’s most recent single, “Pasoori,” has drawn more than two hundred and ninety million viewers on YouTube.) The four friends continue to keep in touch, talking on the phone or the Internet nearly every day.

As Mark Twain might have said, the widespread reports on the death of painting in the nineteen-seventies were greatly exaggerated. Video art, process art, performance art, land art, social-practice art, and other conceptual modes took up a lot of artistic oxygen in those years, but painting on canvas survived, and in the eighties and nineties painters found new forms and revived old ones, including portraiture and storytelling. John Currin, an American artist in the generation before Toor’s, mined classical art for techniques and subject matter that he then applied to his often startling explorations of contemporary life, and his influence on Toor and other young painters was prodigious. Toor had spoken to me of his admiration for Currin. “I looked at his painting very closely after I graduated from the Pratt Institute,” he said. “I saw that he had an amazing technique, and I just wanted to look at the surfaces of his paintings and see how he made this material contemporary. I felt like there was so much I could learn from him.” Currin and Toor had never met, so my wife, Dodie, called Rachel Feinstein, Currin’s artist wife, whom she knows well, and Feinstein invited the three of us to have dinner at their town house in Manhattan.

It was a warmish night in early May. The house has five floors, and there are Currin paintings on almost every wall. A larger-than-life sculpture by Feinstein, of the Italian clown Punchinello and his family, fills the entrance hall. When Toor arrived, wearing a loose, saffron-colored linen shirt over matching pants, Feinstein showed him around. “These are portraits of the kids that John’s been doing over the years,” she said. “This is one of me when I was thirty—before the kids. Now my portraits look like I’m angry.” Toor recognized almost every painting by name, from reproductions he’d seen. Currin joined us in the sitting room, and shook hands with Toor. They sat down near a blazing fire. “John wants the drama of fires even when it’s a thousand degrees outside,” Feinstein explained. “He turns up the air-conditioning beforehand.”

“That’s such a painter’s drawing,” Toor said, of an exquisite portrait of Feinstein above the fireplace. “I feel that in the hair and the eyes.” Currin laughed, and said, “It’s really old, like 1996.” Always a robust presence, Currin has started to look a bit grizzled, with thinning hair on top and a full, grayish beard and mustache. “I didn’t see your work until the show at the Whitney, which was very good,” he told Toor.

Toor said that when he was an art student “there were only four or five people doing what you do”—meaning figurative paintings of real people. “There was you, and—”

“Kerry James Marshall,” Currin said.

“Yes, and Nicole Eisenman.”

“Right. Lisa Yuskavage.”

“Hernan Bas was there,” Toor added. “So few people. I just thought, Why is it important? What makes bodies important? And now figuration is everywhere.”

Feinstein had also invited the rock singer Patty Smyth and her husband, John McEnroe, to dinner. Smyth arrived without McEnroe, who had to be at a tennis event in North Carolina.

Currin jumped up to greet her, and then he said, “I’m going to move away from the fire. I like the aesthetics of a fire but not the heat.”

There was talk about the art market and how you could avoid paying astronomic prices for Old Master paintings. “You can get things if there’s a penis, or a naked man’s butt,” Feinstein said. “And, if there’s a lot of the color green, they’re affordable.”

Currin looked at Toor. “I have bad news,” he said. “You use a lot of green, and there are guys’ asses. Learn now to hang drywalls is all I’ve got to say.”

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