Meet the Man Behind the Art at Neiman Marcus

Among the North Texas artists selected to have their work on display at the recently opened Neiman Marcus in Fort Worth, John Holt Smith has also had his art grace the cover of the store’s Christmas catalog in the past. His pink-toned Vertical Wildflower Sequence and blue-toned Vertical Swim Sequence are prominently exhibited upstairs and flank either side of the couture evening gown department. For those without insight into this artist’s process, these paintings may just seem like a series of colorful stripes. The intrigue lies in Smith’s method.

It was Smith’s introduction to a spectrograph in a physics class years ago that influenced his unique approach to painting. Capable of capturing light from an object in space, spectroscopy utilizes that light to analyze the object’s position, rate of movement and composition.

“I thought that was incredible that you could look at the color of something and learn so much about it. I then wondered what we’d be able to determine about more familiar subjects by examining the sequence of its light,” Smith says.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Smith would ride his bike to the museums, see the artwork and then hurry home to see if he could do a drawing or painting similar to what he had just seen. His late stepfather had a contemporary art collection that included some big-name artists. “He entered my life when I was 10. I had been drawing realistically, and then all of a sudden, there were all of these abstract paintings. The artists of the paintings in his collection weren’t big when he acquired them. He operated on a modest budget. People thought he was crazy for buying a Warhol, Stella and Calder.”

Smith received a B.F.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and also spent a year in Florence, Italy, studying art and art history. “When I graduated from college, I moved to New York pretty much the next day. I lived there for seven years, worked in a frame shop to make ends meet and figured out how the galleries worked. I had good representation, but by 29 I was ready to get married and have kids. That’s when I decided to move back to Texas,” Smith says.

He had always gravitated to the work of the ’60s and ’70s when artists were experimenting to see how colors reacted to each other. “I’m attempting to update the color field approach to painting. I’m using a computer to distort a photograph, so it’s gone from an artist choosing everything to nature playing a part in it,” he says.

Determined to take something realistic and create artwork by distorting it, Smith began photographing things in the water. It didn’t achieve the desired result he hoped for, which led him back to the spectrograph.

Starting with an up-close image of his wife’s eye, Smith created an artificial spectrograph through the use of Photoshop. After pinpointing and enlarging one cross section of the photograph, he uses the photo-editing program to stretch the image out into uniform lines. If he is satisfied with what is created, he then mimics that color sequence onto a giant aluminum panel.

Smith explains, “I use a floor-to-ceiling moving ruler that I slide back and forth in front of the panel. On a typical painting, there may be 1,500 lines of color. Some of them are just a hair’s width. That is what creates a vibration to the paintings. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive but also meditative.”

Several of Smith’s large-scale commissions are on display for the public at the Joule Hotel in Dallas, Terminal D at the DFW International Airport, the Gideon Toal building in Fort Worth, Midwestern University in Wichita Falls and most recently at Neiman Marcus at Clearfork.