Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters


The Frick Collection’s temporary residence at Frick Madison has prompted new and stimulating ways of looking at the museum’s collection of Old Master paintings. Part of a broad program of publications, digital productions, and collaborations inspired by these new perspectives, Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters is an exciting year-long project featuring the work of four New York–based artists: Doron Langberg, Salman Toor, Jenna Gribbon, and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Each presents a single new work in conversation with iconic paintings in the Frick’s collection, with particular emphasis on issues of gender and queer identity typically excluded from narratives of early modern European art.


Installations are located on the second floor of Frick Madison

The series of installations begins with Doron Langberg's Lover and Salman Toor's Museum Boys (September 30, 2021, through January 2022).


Dates

  • Doron Langberg
    Now on view through January 2022

    Salman Toor
    Now on view through January 2022
  • Jenna Gribbon
    February through April 2022

    Toyin Ojih Odutola
    April through August 2022

Room 2

A painting with loose brushwork depicting a young man sitting on a couch, reading a piece of paperDoron Langberg (b. Yokneam Moshava, Israel, 1985)
Lover, 2021
Oil on linen
30 x 24 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro
Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr.
 

Langberg’s paintings celebrate the physicality of touch—in subject matter and process. His intimate yet expansive take on relationships, sexuality, nature, family, and the self proposes how painting can both portray and create queer subjectivity. Lover captures a domestic moment: the subject at home and undressed, nestled in a sofa reading a paper.

Like Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More, Lover is based on direct observation and a close study of the sitter. The artists share a desire for their paintings to feel as alive as their subjects—as Holbein himself stated—and both use surface treatment and paint handling to animate their respective figures, albeit in much different ways. With expressive gestures, abstracted depictions, and broad swaths of intense color, Langberg combines the evidence of his painting process with naturalistic portrayals of the human form, carefully noting its contours, textures, and details like body hair and the fall of light on flesh. Where, for Holbein, the illusion of tactility—a stubbled chin, a velvet sleeve—conveys his own mastery as a painter and the material wealth and power of his sitters, for Langberg, physical and illusory tactility eroticize his subject and his viewers’ acts of looking. By engaging the viewer in this desirous relationship with the paint and subject, Langberg brings us into his queer world.

Lover temporarily takes the place of Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell, which is currently on loan to the exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (October 19, 2021–January 9, 2022).

Transcript


Room 6

Salman Toor (b. Lahore, Pakistan, 1983)
Museum Boys, 2021
Oil on panel
30 x 40 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr.
 

Salman Toor’s Museum Boys draws on the quiet domestic exchanges in Vermeer’s paintings. Set in an allegorical space filled with imaginary sculpture, a ghost-like figure in the foreground smiles coyly at a partially dressed man in the middle ground, echoing the mood of tipsy flirtation in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. The sense of arrival and anticipation mirrors the exchange between the figures in Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. Whereas the objects in Vermeer’s paintings illustrate the growing influence of the Dutch Republic on international trade, the surreal menagerie in Toor’s painting conjures queer mythology and colonial plunder. The heap of objects and limbs in the vitrine between the figures—a recurring motif in the artist’s work—signifies greed, lust, and exhaustion, a hectic consumerist orgy re-organized and re-compiled for a museum space. The vitrine hints at a darker aspect of Vermeer’s prosperous subjects, beneficiaries of the global trade of spices, porcelain, and much more.

The dandyish fashion on view in Museum Boys—a buckled hat, a pale shawl, a pearl earring—is a reference to the costume in Vermeer’s pictures. All this while an assortment of European and Buddhist-looking busts solemnly stand sentinel to an Islamic tombstone in the background. Bringing together a love of narrative, questions of cultural ownership, and queer taxonomy, Toor’s Museum Boys is a sultry, sidelong glance at the canonical world of the Old Masters.

Museum Boys temporarily takes the place of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which is currently on loan to the exhibition Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany (September 10, 2021–January 2, 2022).

Transcript


Audio Transcripts

Doron Langberg's Commentary

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

Doron Langberg’s Lover engages with the 16th-century portrait by Holbein displayed nearby. Here’s the artist discussing how Holbein’s art inspires him and the themes he explores in his portrait.

[Doron Langberg, Artist]

Seeing a Holbein painting in person is an overwhelming experience.

The level of specificity and clarity is mind blowing.

In the portrait of Thomas More, the shimmery folds of velvet, the soft fur, and the stubble on his chin are so vivid he feels totally alive.

On first encounter I couldn’t really wrap my head around the paintings, and it was actually Holbein’s drawings that gave me access to his work.

More pared down but no less refined than the paintings, each element in the drawing—hair, garments, features—is handled differently, varying in material and even color.

It’s almost a collage sensibility.

This range of visual languages resonated with my own fascination with painting’s power to communicate the sensation of touch, both describing what a material might feel like through illusionistic rendering, and the literal touching of the surface during the painting process.

For me, there’s a clear relationship between this tactility and desire, where the painting and the act of looking itself takes on a sensual or erotic quality.

Being queer, the nature of this desire is not neutral and is sometimes seen as different or even less than.

Through all my work I try to challenge that idea, and in this piece—depicting an intimate domestic moment—I wanted to bring the viewer in through my use of paint and color and share with them a fundamental part of my experience of the world.

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

This installation is part of the series Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, and will be on view until January 2022.

Salman Toor's Commentary

[Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator]

Salman Toor’s Museum Boys engages with the 17th-century paintings by Vermeer in this room. Here is the artist describing how Vermeer’s art inspires him and the themes he explores in his painting.

[Salman Toor, Artist]

I saw Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep at the Met about 15 years ago. The scale was precious and intimate, inviting me to look closer.

It was painted differently from similar subjects painted by his contemporaries in that it was photographic in parts, some things out of focus, some things sharply in focus—light caught little things that produced almost a little sound like a wind chime, like a tiiiing.

It was like an ASMR experience. It gave me goosebumps.

Yet in Vermeer’s quiet domestic settings there were objects from far away, pointing to 17th-century Dutch supremacy at global trade with Asia and Southeast Asia. These were emblems of the Asian encounter with Europe that transformed post-colonial regions like South Asia, where I’m from.

I related to the coded behavior in Vermeer’s paintings. As a queer man from a conservative culture, I related to the constraints of a moralistic society shown in Vermeer’s paintings where innuendo is the mode of expression. This is reminiscent of generations of queer people in the west and in still intolerant places in the world.

In response to Vermeer’s paintings, I wanted to create an imaginary allegorical space—thinking about the quiet flirtations and the carefully placed objects in Vermeer’s compositions—about items of costume and fashion that conspire to elucidate or confuse us in identifying types of people.

The objects in my paintings are slightly humorous—heaps of body parts, puddles and stone busts resembling plunder or the idea of mammon—hinting at the fracturing experience of growing up as a femme boy in a macho, patriarchal culture and assimilating (to an extent) into western urban culture.

Through this work, I hope viewers find the past in unexpected places. With this proximity to the reverential world of the Old Masters, I want to question who the European history of painting, humanism, and empire belongs to.

And I want to explore exciting new ways of connecting the past with the present.

[Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator]

This installation is part of the series Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters and will be on view until January 2022.

About the Artists

  • photo of Doron Langberg

    Doron Langberg (b. Yokneam Moshava, Israel, 1985) lives and works in New York City. He received his M.F.A. from the Yale University School of Art, holds a B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and a Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and attended the Yale Summer School of Music and Art, Norfolk. Langberg has attended the EFA Studio Program, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, Yaddo artist residency, and the Queer Art Mentorship Program. He is the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’s John Koch Award in Art, an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant, and the Yale Schoelkopf Travel Prize. Langberg’s first solo exhibition in London, Give Me Love, is at Victoria Miro until November 6, 2021. Langberg’s work will be included in a major group exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston in 2022. Previously, his work has been shown at institutional venues including the LSU Museum of Art, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Leslie-Lohman Museum, and the PAFA Museum. His work is in the collections of the ICA Miami, PAFA Museum, and RISD Museum. This summer Langberg’s work was featured in the show Intimacy: New Queer Art from Berlin and Beyond at the Schwules Museum, Berlin.

    Photo: Rafael Martinez

    #DoronLangberg

  • photo of Salman Toor

    Salman Toor (b. Lahore, Pakistan, 1983) was the subject of a critically acclaimed solo exhibition, How Will I Know, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020–21. Other recent solo shows include The Pleasure Pavilion: A series of installations | Salman Toor (Luhring Augustine, Brooklyn, New York) and I Know a Place (Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi, India). Toor’s work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions and projects, including Any distance between us (RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island); and I will wear you in my heart of heart (FLAG Art Foundation, New York); Art on the Grid: 50 Artists’ Reflections on the Pandemic (Public Art Fund, New York); Relations: Diaspora and Painting (PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, Montreal); Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago); You Here? (Lahore Biennale 2018, Pakistan); and the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India. His work is in the permanent collections of the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, New York; M Woods Museum, Beijing, China; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Tate, London; RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island; the Wake Forest University Art Collection, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Toor is the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. An image of his painting Music Room (2021) is featured on the Hayward Gallery Billboard, London, through spring 2022. Toor earned his M.F.A. at Pratt Institute in 2009.

    Photo: Salman Toor

    #SalmanToor

  • photo of Jenna Gribbon

    Jenna Gribbon (b. Knoxville, Tennessee, 1978) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her syncretic canvases draw on several centuries of painting: figures disporting themselves in a sylvan setting recall Fragonard’s fêtes galantes; interiors with swiftly articulated walls evoke the cursory backgrounds of Mary Cassatt; gently distorted architectural features summon the laissez-faire depictions of Karen Kilimnik. Sampling freely from various representational techniques and movements, Gribbon’s paint handling ranges from the virtuosic to the intentionally slapdash; fast, impressionistic strokes often abut minutely illustrated details, highlighting the artist’s interest in collapsing numerous pictorial strategies into a single canvas. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad. She has been included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville; and the Kurpfälzisches Museum, Heidelberg (upcoming). During the fall and winter of 2021, Gribbon's work is the subject of a solo exhibition, Uscapes, at Fredericks & Freiser, New York. In 2022, London's MASSIMODECARLO (which also represents her) will present a solo exhibition as well. A monograph of Gribbon's work was published by GNYP GmbH in September 2021.

    Photo: Nir Arieli

    #JennaGribbon

  • photo of Toyin Ojih Odutola

    Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985) is known for works on paper that explore the malleability of identity and possibilities in visual storytelling. Interested in the topography of skin, she has a distinctive style of mark making using basic drawing materials, such as pens, pencils, pastels, and charcoal. This technique involves building up layers through blending and shading, creating compositions that reinvent and reinterpret the traditions of portraiture. Ojih Odutola credits the development of her style from using pen, which as a writing tool links her work to fiction in crafted narratives that unfold through series of artworks like the chapters of a book. Her work is inspired by both art history and popular culture, as well as her own personal history—from her birth in Nigeria to her childhood move to America, where she was raised in conservative Alabama. In more recent series, she has also explored the depictions of landscapes, architecture, and domestic interiors. Ojih Odutola’s work has been presented in several shows at Jack Shainman Gallery, and her first solo museum exhibition in New York, To Wander Determined, was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017–18. In late 2020, London’s Barbican Centre presented A Countervailing Theory, which traveled in the spring of 2021 to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark. The installation will also be shown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., November 19, 2021, through April 3, 2022.

    Photo: Beth Wilkinson

    #ToyinOjihOdutola