Born in Lahore and based in New York, the painter Salman Toor depicts the lives of queer, South Asian men in imagined surroundings that draw as much from the Old Masters as they do from the modern metropolis. Toor’s scenes are often casual – his figures dance at house parties and stare into smartphones – but always meticulously composed. After his first solo museum show, ‘How Will I Know’, took place at the Whitney, 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; the work Toor has completed, ‘Museum Boys’, responds to two paintings by Vermeer in the Frick, and is currently on view at the museum alongside them.
What do you like most about your studio?
I like the vastness of it. I don’t run into things or work in worrying mounds of storage, something I did in my much smaller previous space where I spent eight happy years.
What frustrates you about it?
There is way too much natural light. It causes a glare on wet paint and sometimes I can’t see what I’m doing so I have to move to darker corner to work.
Do you work alone?
How messy is your studio?
Not very. I’m a neat person. Cleaning is cathartic.
What does it smell like?
It smells like years and years of linseed, turpentine and sage.
What’s the weirdest object in there?
A little pink porcelain sow with her piglets nestling among her udders. It’s not weird exactly, but surprisingly affectionate. I bought it in Columbia Road Flower market in London a couple of years ago.
Museum Boys (2021), Salman Toor. Photo: Farzad Owrang; courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; © Salman Toor
Which artistic tool could you least do without?
A fine ballpoint pen. I draw quite a lot and a pencil or charcoal smudges over time, especially if it’s in a tiny sketchbook which is what I use. I like that ballpoint resembles an etching.
What’s the most well-thumbed book in your studio?
It changes but right now it’s Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, a catalogue for a stunning show. Wish I’d seen it. Among other museums it was at the Met.
Do you pin up images of other artists’ works? (If so, what are they?)
I don’t usually but at the moment I have two postcards pinned in a corner: Balthus’s The Street (at MoMA) and Manet’s Little Cavaliers (a copy after a composition by Velazquez’s studio)
Do you cook in the studio?
I’ve never cooked in my studio. I make a salad at home and bring it with me for lunch – otherwise it’s the Turkish/Lebanese place nearby, called Semkeh.
What do you listen to while you’re working?
Tame Impala for energy, the Jane Eyre (2011, Dario Marianelli) soundtrack for a sense inner drama, Bach for passion, and Bollywood ballads from the ’60s and ’70s for comfort. Sometimes, especially when starting a painting, I like total silence.
Salman Toor at the Frick, photographed in 2021 by Joe Coscia Jr
Do you ever sleep in your studio?
I only slept there once. In 2015 I returned to New York from Lahore and did not have an apartment and didn’t want to couch surf so I lived in my 10ft by 20ft studio. I showered at the gym for two weeks until I found my place on 11th and Avenue B in East Village. Once is enough.
Is anything (or anyone) banned?
Taking photos of paintings not yet shared or exhibited in a show and plastering them on Instagram before I do. Don’t steal my thunder, please.