Critics’ Picks

Salman Toor, Bedroom Boy, 2019, oil on plywood, 12 x 16".

Salman Toor, Bedroom Boy, 2019, oil on plywood, 12 x 16".

New York

Salman Toor

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
November 13, 2020–April 4, 2021

Gaga, Carly, Robyn, Britney, and Madonna: I can almost hear Salman Toor’s paintings before I see them. Through their acidic green patina, anthems of glamorous loneliness seemingly emanate from the artist’s depictions of young, queer, Brown men, be they intimately gathered on a dance floor or smoking outside of a bar. The show’s title, “How Will I Know,” draws from Whitney Houston’s 1985 ode to crushing, and it casts a palpable air of longing and elation over everything. In Four Friends, 2019, the first painting you see upon entering the exhibition, two boys dance together in a small living room with flirtatious abandon, while two other boys, one of whom has his arm tenderly wrapped around the other, gaze into the cool light of a smartphone together.

In Toor’s vignettes, we observe subjects grappling with the images they make of themselves, and the images that others make for them. Sometimes, this process is intimate and fun, as in Bedroom Boy, 2019, where a young man coyly takes a nude selfie in his boudoir; at other times, it is labor-intensive and tiring, as suggested by the terse smile of the pink-jacketed subject surrounded by a cloud of stylists making him up in The Star, 2019. For many queer people of color, the agency to fashion one’s own image is critical yet heavily policed. Indeed, several of Toor’s paintings address this. In another canvas from 2019, we see a pair of dejected-looking figures standing before a desktop rendered in dull gray—the official color of grim bureaucracy. The surface is strewn with personal items, such as a necktie and a sneaker. It seems as though the scene is taking place in an airport screening room—a scene of humiliation caused by some bigoted official’s notion that the two Brown men are security threats.

I was drawn to the portrayal of diasporic queerness in Toor’s paintings. Tea, 2020, depicts a man who might be back home, visiting family. He’s standing in front of his ostensibly South Asian kin, likely getting peppered with uncomfortable questions from aunties and uncles. The moment is recognizable: It’s an encounter between a culture that you were born into and one that you chose, but neither of which captures all of the potential ways to be queer in the world. It feels vivid and full of possibility.