Post-War & Contemporary Art / SALMAN TOOR (B. 1983) Alexandra, the Boys, City Lights 2006
Sold for £126,300 inc. premium
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Private Collection, Pakistan (acquired directly from the artist in 2012)
Coming to auction for the first time after remaining in the same private collection for a decade, Alexandra, The Boys, City Lights from 2012 captures an interior scene that is strung with deeper hidden meanings and tensions between its three subjects. Hailed as a rising star of figurative painting, Salman Toor grew up as a queer youth in Lahore, Pakistan, and settled in New York after a brief stint studying art at the Ohio Wesleyan University. From early on in his studies, Toor has shown a predilection for the past, concentrating on the techniques and compositions of the Old Masters with a particular focus on artists such as Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and the refined Rococo canvases of Jean-Antoine Watteau. "Instead of moving with the times, I wanted an academic education in painting," he explained. "I wanted to be as good as the white old masters. In fact, I was happy only when I could pretend that I was a 17th or 18th century painter living in Madrid, Venice or Holland" (the artist in: Ayla Angelos, ''I wanted to be as good as the white old masters': meet painter Salman Toor' www.itsnicethat.com, 7 November 2019).
Toor depicts his apparently casual but meticulously staged protagonists in imagined surroundings, drawn from his own life and experience as a queer Pakistani man living in America. His works are imbued with an air of the past mixed with modern life. Classically inspired compositions are broken up by the inclusion of a hand clutching a phone, a car, or the view onto the lights of a metropolis in the background. His imagery is not based on concrete events but drawn from memory and feelings. His protagonists draw parallels to the artist himself, people that have been marginalized within the Western canon: "I like for the characters in my painting to move between vulnerability and empowerment. I like foolish, marionette-like figures that evoke empathy as immigrants crossing borders, but they also have agency and dignity: things that have not been traditionally associated with our faces and bodies in painting" (the artist in: Nidhi Gupta, 'Pakistani-origin, New York-based artist Salman Toor wants to paint a world where the East and West harmonise', GQ India, 12 March 2020).
Whilst Alexandra, The Boys, City Lights depicts a quintessentially modern scene – three people painted in an earthy palette inhabit a dimly lit room – the artist's penchant for the classical tradition is palpable. The room and its furnishings are only hinted at with the composition focusing fully and dramatically on its inhabitants. We are drawn straight into the room, Alexandra sits on the corner of what appears to be a bed, she is in the foreground of the composition and her upper body takes up as much space as the two men to the right. Her eyes are lowered, her expression is difficult to read but she seems to be reacting directly to what is happening behind her, a fleeting, indistinct but intimate encounter between two lithe young men. The work shows the artist's ability to create atmospheric and enigmatic narratives, human emotion is perfectly captured in every face, and we cannot help but be drawn into the scene and wonder what is going on. The artist himself has elevated the painting by inscribing the reverse: 'Done at a highly formative time in NYC - This is my West Village apartment'.
Following his critically acclaimed institutional debut How Will I Know, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2020–21, Toor has recently completed a residency at the Frick Madison, New York, as part of its Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters programme. His work Museum Boys is currently displayed there in a wonderful juxtaposition with Johannes Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl (circa 1657) and Mistress and Maid (circa 1666-7) from the Frick collection. The Whitney also recently acquired three of Toor's paintings for its permanent collection, a sure testament to the quality and promise of Toor's oeuvre in the increasingly diverse contemporary art scene.