On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
How Will I Know
November 13, 2020 – April 4, 2021
One can’t help but feel a sense of relief upon entering How Will I Know, Salman Toor’s highly anticipated solo American institutional debut. Unfortunately, the show’s planned March 2020 opening coincided with the unforeseen shutdown of museums and galleries, leaving us to wonder for months what we were missing. Relief, then, came from being immediately greeted at the show’s entrance by Four Friends (2019), a joyous and enchanting painting of queer men reveling in each other’s company inside a vibrant fern-green apartment. Despite an extensive delay, the party has gone on after all.
Toor, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1983 and emigrated to the US in the mid-aughts, presents 15 paintings that primarily feature queer and Brown figures in imaginative, dream-like tableaus. In works like The Star (2019) and Puppy Play Date (2019), these dreams are celebratory and luscious; in others, such as the interrogative airport security scene, Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug (2019), these dreams are nightmares of racist and xenophobic realities. Toor’s paintings transition easily from pleasure to violence. Although their narratives are decidedly figurative, it is difficult to fully grasp them. Instead, Toor depicts transitory moments that are rife with potentials at every glance.
On each canvas, the artist uses sketch-like marks as a way to emphasize disparate and individualized pieces coming together to form something new. This is made poignantly clear in Parts and Things (2019), a still-life of sorts that features clothing and accessories heaped together with severed limbs and heads. It is possible to identify these same objects and body parts in the lively scenes of the other paintings, which suggests that, like each individual brushstroke contributing to the larger whole, the figures on display are an amalgamation of disparate pieces that exist cohesively. In addition to the artist’s own interest in fashion, this may be why clothing seams are repeatedly emphasized throughout the exhibition. As individual dashes, the seams are identical with the marks that fill the canvases. At the same time, they also specify the way in which individual surfaces are delicately held together.
Throughout his oeuvre, Toor brilliantly reproduces motifs and styles from various movements and artists (Rococo and Neo-Impressionism especially, but also contemporary sources like Nicole Eisenman and Kehinde Wiley) and reimagines them through the depiction of queer, South Asian characters. The citation of past artists—Manet, Picasso, and Matisse in particular—is commonplace amongst Toor’s fellow queer figurative painters such as Louis Fratino, Jenna Gribbon, and Kyle Dunn. What sets him apart is his ability to pull from visual cultures that pertain to his own diasporic identity and integrate them harmoniously into allusions to art history. In Unruly Visions, Gayatri Gopinath argues that “the aesthetic practices of queer diaspora … allow us to see and sense the intertwined nature of various bodies of knowledge, racial formations, and historical experiences of displacement and dispossession.”1 Toor’s version of this intracultural braiding leads to stunning results: Cézanne’s meditative card players transform into a melancholic queer man interrupting his family in Tea (2020), while Jean-Léon Gérôme’s orientalist gaze is undone by a Brown man indulging in his own beauty in Bedroom Boy (2019).
The paintings invite us in as we scan over them: dashes of emerald vibrate, cloud-grey lines illuminate, tawny marks speak. This atmospheric tension is mirrored in the reservation and hesitancy of several figures. In The Arrival (2019), for example, the left figure’s face, turned slightly downward, expresses uncertainty and worry as he waits for the other figure to lower his arm and receive him. A similar feeling propels the narrative in Bar Boy (2019), where the protagonist stands alone and stares at his phone in a crowd of queer couples and friends. It’s a familiar situation—who hasn’t used their phone to escape the uncomfortable feeling of being by yourself amongst a group of strangers? This escape route is of course transparent, and this makes the central figure’s isolation all the more obvious. But in Toor’s paintings, reservation and hesitancy are not always regarded negatively. Instead, in a quasi-orgasmic way, these moments intensify the possibilities and pleasures that can unfold. In Four Friends, the figures on the right sit snugly together, the blonde raising his phone to share something with his companion. Like in Bar Boy, the phone distracts from the tension shared between the two. But it’s easy to imagine that as the tension rises, the phone will lower, and the two will be drawn in even closer to each other and kiss.
“If he loves me, if he loves me not … oh, how will I know?” goes the bridge to the iconic Whitney Houston song for which this exhibition is named. Following Houston’s lead, Toor knows that to go back and forth between two possibilities never provides peace. As these exquisite paintings demonstrate in both content and form, people change, spaces are morphed by who inhabits them, appearances transform under different lights, and the self that one constructs today might be different tomorrow. Rather than crumble under the anxiety of possibility, Toor makes a convincing case that the interim is desirable precisely because it is dynamic.
- Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).