Salman Toor - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "I think of the pictures as short stories where the emphasis falls on unexpected places, seemingly mundane situations become illuminating or interesting ones. It’s a way of dealing in clichés and daring to do them well." 
    — Salman Toor


    Heralded by The New York Times as one of the twelve ‘Breakout Stars of 2020’i, the The Wall Street Journal as one of twelve ‘entertainers and artists who will define 2021’ii, and listed among TIME magazine’s 2021 list of 100 emerging leaders shaping the futureiii, Pakistan-born Salman Toor has captured the attention of the art world as one of the most exciting figurative painters to emerge over the past few years, celebrated for his tender brushstrokes of luscious oil paint that intimately present introspective nuances of everyday life. His first solo museum show How Will I Know opened at the reputable Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in November 2020, garnering significant recognition including that of the esteemed critic Roberta Smith whose review praised Toor’s ‘brilliant debut’iv of paintings that ‘begin to pluck at your heartstrings almost as soon as you see them’iv

    A month later, Toor’s second work to be offered at auction and the first in Asia, Group Dance (2012) far surpassed its estimates when it was sold by Phillips in Hong Kong – with the current auction record for the artist broken yet again later that same day. Painted in 2013 and unveiled at the artist’s solo show The Happy Servant at the Aicon Gallery in New York, Girl with Driver is an enchanting example of Toor’s masterful ability to convey narrative through colour and form, brilliantly showcasing the artist’s unique amalgamation of references that seamlessly blend art-historical traditions with contemporary culture drawn from his experiences in both South Asia and New York.  

    A Foot in the Past and a Foot in the Present


    Filling the frame of Girl with Driver sits a salmon-coloured Honda Civic, set against a backdrop of foliage and pale sky. Whilst the driver looks straight ahead, his passenger gazes dreamily out of the open backseat window, her fingers clasped around a blush-coloured flower she has plucked from the tall stem outside. Though their relationship remains unclear, both the title of the work and the 2013 show it exhibited at, The Happy Servant, suggest that the male figure is employed as the woman’s driver, and invite a dialogue concerning the class chasm, a theme Toor has consistently returned to throughout his oeuvre. At the same time, the scene evokes a sense of familiarity that harkens back to Toor’s upbringing in Pakistan, heightened by parallels between the composition and the idealised lifestyle imagery that dominates contemporary South-Asian mass-media, Bollywood and advertising.

  • Each of the eleven works exhibited at The Happy Servant, including Girl with Driver, probe the master-servant dynamic and tensions between economic classes, in a light-hearted yet slightly ominous, thought-provoking way. In this series, as well as other bodies of work by Toor such as Close Quarters, an exhibition at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi in 2014, Toor presents wondrous visions where members of the working class are placed in the same pictorial space as their employers, in what seems to be a jubilant display of duty at first glance.


    For example, in The Happy Servant (2013), Toor situates his lower class protagonist in the centre of unrestrained frivolity, carrying grapes, an empty wine glass and wine bucket on a silver platter, all symbols of the Bacchanalian revelry of the upper class that transpires around him. As with The Happy Sweeper (2013), whose central figure sweeps the litter in front of the pristine mansion that looms behind the tree in the background, both these characters wear a smile that appears forced, asserting the absurdity of the scene and critiquing the class divide by evoking an uneasiness in the viewer.


    Detail, Girl with Driver, 2013


    Perhaps more than other works of the series, the class divide is palpable here in Girl with Driver, as the woman and her driver are physically separated by the structure of the car door, with each character visible through their respective window frames — sitting together, yet distinctly apart. And while the driver carries out his role, the passivity of his gaze, not confronting the viewer, contrasts with the unabashed, carefree look of the woman who stares longingly from her window, demonstrative of the enduring differences in the lived experiences and attitudes on either side of the class divide.


    Additionally in his Happy Servant series, Toor also constructs idyllic scenes where class systems are dissolved and drivers, cooks, gardeners and landlords come together in ebullient displays of choreographed Bollywood dance routines, as seen in the background of Rickshaw Driver’s Dream (2013) and in the fore of Group Dance (2012), reinforcing the social fantasies perpetuated by the Indian and Pakistani mass-media and emphasising the darker reality behind these dazzling group portraits.


    “I like bringing together the freedoms of today to disrupt the old attitudes toward gender and race entrenched in the history of European painting.” 
    – Salman Toor


    Despite its contemporary connotations, Girl with Driver is cloaked by a whimsical painterly style that very much aligns the work to that of the Old Masters, perfectly exemplifying Toor’s astonishing technical virtuosity. This juxtaposition, the artist confesses, ‘isn’t premeditated’v, and is instead attributed to his studies at Ohio Wesleyan University followed by his MFA at Pratt Institute from 2006 to 2009, where he‘copied seventeenth and eighteenth-century Old Masters […] to learn to paint like Rubens, Van Dyck,Bernardo Strozzi, Antoine Watteau, among others.’v


    Through the metaphysical qualities of oil paint, the mundane is transformed to idealised motifs as Toor uniquely blends the consumerist fantasies perpetuated by mass-media along with the Renaissance-era spirit of technical perfection, aspiration, and light. As such, in drawing from both his Pakistani origins and Western art education, Toor succeeds in refreshing figurative painting, particularly as a means to explore identity and social constructs.

    A Timeless Beauty

    In examining the work’s subjects, we are immediately engaged by the female protagonist who appears lost in reverie, donning an intriguing smile that oscillates between sincerity and caricature. Unlike the drivers face which is turned away, her beguiling expression is illuminated by intense light and shadow that lends to an almost chiaroscuro effect and highlights upon her defined features. 



    Thomas Gainsborough, Honourable Mrs Graham, 1775

    Collection of the Scottish National Gallery


    Her rosy cheeks, lips, and a pearly white scarf are reminiscent of Thomas Gainsborough’s Honourable Mrs Graham (1775), a portrait Toor encountered in the form of a ‘cheap print in [his] grandmother’s home’v when he was very young that helped form his first ideas around the concept of glamour. Although Toor created the present work over two-hundred years later, both paintings share a richness of texture with bold tonalities that combine to achieve a sense of timeless beauty, demonstrating defined expertise of the oil medium that only few can master.





    John Currin, Mother and Daughter, 1997 

    Collection of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles 


    A more contemporary comparison can be made between the stylised figures in Girl with Driver and John Currin’s revitalising of the portrait genre through miming art history. Echoing old master poses and formats, Currin’s distorted portraits frequently conflate taste with vulgarity, beauty with banality, and other opposing sensibilities. Yet whereas Currin’s depictions give the figure a higher degree of plasticity, creating a body of portraiture that is both novel and contemporary in its own right, Toor takes on a more subtle approach in turning to the aesthetics of the past to satirically critique on our present. 


    Girl with Driver

    Painting from memory and imagination, Eastern and Western references bustle and interact at the core of Toor’s work to weave narrative-driven interpretation into the ambiguous visual structure. As such, it is important to also consider the artist’s early influences, as well as from the period in which the work was created. Having cited Amrita Sher-Gil as one of his first sources of inspiration, a feminist artist whom too sought to share the lives of those often overlooked, a link is made between the female character’s intriguing expression in Girl with Driver and the melancholic portraits of Indian women created by Sher-Gil in the 1930s. Giving voice and validity to their experiences through her paintbrush, her empowered art challenged without overt confrontation, paving the way for modernism in Indian art. 



    Amrita Sher-Gil, Klarra Szepessy, 1932

    Collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi


    In a similar vein, the delicate white fabric draped around the passenger’s shoulders in the present work - known as a dupatta in Pakistan - can perhaps be viewed as a nod to the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose signature white dupatta look was embraced as a way to downplay her Western lifestyle and boost her political support. The first female to head the democratic government, she was tragically assassinated in public in 2007 at a political rally just days before general elections, targeted at whilst she waved at the public from the sunroof of her car. Though tragedies moulded her life, she had the courage, resolve, passion and dedication to the people of her country to change their destiny, and her sudden death left a void in both leadership and inspiration.



    Benazir Bhutto


    Her invincible legacy remains, however, in the Pakistani girls and women who look at her perseverance in the face of all odds and thrill to the idea that gender does not have to stop them from achieving their dreams. This includes Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who became an international symbol for the fight for girls’ education when in 2012, aged 14, she survived a gun shot aimed at her while on her school bus ride home. Created a year later in 2013, it would be difficult to view Girl with Driver without considering this possible influence. 


    Smelling a flower from her engine-running car, the female protagonist in the present painting initially feels to offer viewers a strange visual cliché, which gives way once it is realised that the stem it has been plucked from what looks to be an olive branch – the historic symbol for peace and hope. Coupled with the magenta flower metaphorically providing another link to Benazir Bhutto, whose rosy complexion as a toddler gave her the nickname ‘Pinkie’, perhaps in a way, Girl with Driver can be seen as a tribute to her; her grace, and the progressiveness Toor is still yearning for in his native Pakistan.




    Indeed, this link is highlighted upon by another work of Toor’s same series, titled Pinkie, depicting a striking portrait of a woman whom too, bears a compelling resemblance to Bhutto, despite being dressed in distinctly Westernised clothes. In this light, in our quest to determine the identity of the Girl with Driver, perhaps she is actually the representation of any girl who wants to dream big and not be limited by political or social constraints, an issue still as poignant today.




    i Maya Salman, ‘The Breakout Stars of 2020’, The New York Times, 23 December 2020, online
    ii ‘The 12 Entertainers and Artists Who Will Define 2021’, The Wall Street Journal, 17 January 2021, online

    iii  Suyin Haynes, '2021 TIME100 NEXT', TIME, 17 February 2021, online
    iv Roberta Smith, ‘Salman Toor: a Painter at Home in Two Worlds’, The New York Times, 23 December 2020, online
    v Maria Vogel, ‘Salman Toor Disrupts Old Attitudes of Gender and Race’, Art of Choice, 10 December 2019, online


    • Provenance

      Aicon Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Aicon Gallery, Salman Toor: The Happy Servant, 8 May - 22 June 2013


Girl with Driver

oil on canvas
142 x 200 cm. (55 7/8 x 78 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2013.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,200,000 - 2,200,000 

Sold for HK$6,905,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021