This essay by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Assistant Curator, Painting
and Sculpture, National Museum of American Art, was originally published
by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for a 1976 exhibition of James Hampton's
work. All photos copyright Smithsonian Institution.
Around 1950 James Hampton approached a merchant in Washington, D.C., about renting an unheated, poorly lit garage in a deteriorating residential neighborhood. Hampton explained that he was "working on something" and needed a larger space than that available in his room in a nearby boarding house. By November 4, 1964, when he died of cancer, he had built 180 glittering objects in the garage. That "something" had become The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly.
The little that is known about James Hampton has been gleaned from his employment and army records, an elderly relative in South Carolina, and a handful of people in Washington who visited the garage. Hampton was born on April 8, 1909, in Elloree, South Carolina, a small rural community. His father, after whom James was named, was a black gospel singer and preacher of sorts who abandoned his wife and four children for his itinerant calling. At the age of nineteen Hampton left South Carolina and joined the family of one of his older brothers in Washington, D.C. In an application for government employment, he claimed to have received a tenth-grade education from an elite black high school in the district, but no record of Hampton's attendance has been found. From 1939 to 1942 he was a short-order cook in several local cafes until he joined the federal labor force. Shortly thereafter, he was inducted into the army and served with the 385th Aviation Squadron in Texas, Seattle, Hawaii, and the jungles of Saipan and Guam. The duties of his noncombatant unit included carpentry and maintenance of air strips. Hampton returned to Washington with an honorable discharge in 1945. A year later he was hired by the General Services Administration as a janitor, a job he held until his death.
Hampton's acquaintances have described him as a small, bespectacled, soft-spoken man. Although he talked about finding a holy woman to help him with his project, Hampton never married and had few, if any, friends. Occasionally he returned to South Carolina to visit his sister and oldest brother for the summer. By ordinary standards, Hampton's life was uneventful; however, at some point he began to believe that God and his angels had visited him, not in a dream but in physical form, and had spoken directly to him. The date and circumstances of this first mystical experience are unknown. Nevertheless, he claimed that such visions persisted throughout his life. The earliest that he recorded occurred when he was twenty-two: "This is true that the great Moses the giver of the tenth commandment appeared in Washington, D.C., April 11, 1931." Of his last dated vision he stated: "This design is proof of the Virgin Mary descending [sic] into Heaven, November 2, 1950. It is also spoken of by Pope Pius XII." The Pope had proclaimed the Assumption of the Virgin as church dogma on that day.
Inspired by such visions, Hampton dedicated himself to building The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly. He probably had initiated the project before renting the garage in 1950, but an exact date cannot be established. Although one small unit in the assemblage is labeled "Made on Guam, April 14, 1945," no substantial proof exists to confirm that Hampton made the object while he was overseas.
After finishing his janitorial duties around midnight, Hampton would return to the garage every night to work for five or six hours. He believed that God visited him there regularly to direct him in The Throne's fabrication.
A woman who worked with Hampton since the 1950s recalled that he was diligent and seemed religious, yet he seldom mentioned religion at work and did not press his convictions on her when she visited the garage. Hampton told her that he wanted to be a minister when he retired; one can only speculate that he planned a ministry in a storefront church similar to those found in many of Washington's black residential areas. Another woman who brought food to Hampton maintained that he once tried to attract attention to his project by contacting a local newspaper. Two reporters came to see the work, but they ridiculed him and the story never materialized. The woman also claimed that Hampton had approached nearby churches about using The Throne for teaching purposes, but these churches have not been located.
When Hampton died in 1964, his sister (who saw The Throne for the first time when she came north to claim her brother's body) had neither the resources nor the inclination to transport or preserve the work. Fortunately, the garage owner, hoping to rent the garage without destroying his tenant's project, sought to bring it to public attention. He contacted a reporter who wrote an article for a local newspaper. He also advertised the garage for rent, and, coincidentally, a Washington photographer responded. Eventually, news of The Throne spread to staff members of the National Collection of Fine Arts, and the work was acquired for the museum (now the National Museum of American Art).
Hampton had once remarked to his landlord: "That's my life. I'll finish it before I die." Nevertheless, The Throne is probably incomplete. When examined by the museum's personnel, the work in the garage, though symmetrically organized, was found with several units haphazardly located, as if intended to be included at a later time. Cartons of small incomplete parts were also found, as well as odds and ends of furniture, which were probably destined for future pieces.
An ingenious selection and use of materials and an innate feeling for design characterize Hampton's radiant work. A poor man, he applied his imagination to the transformation of discarded materials. Merchants in the used-furniture district near the garage remember that Hampton would browse, inquire about prices, and sometimes return with a child's wagon to carry away his purchases. All of the objects are covered with different grades of gold and aluminum foils removed from store displays, bottles, cigarette boxes, and rolls of kitchen foil. Hampton paid neighborhood indigents for the foil on their wine bottles, and he walked the streets with a croker sack in which to carry his finds. He also gathered used light bulbs, cardboard, insulation board, construction paper, desk blotters, and sheets of transparent plastic, probably from the trash of the government buildings where he worked.
At first it appeared that the foil covered a substructure of wooden furniture only. Restoration of the objects, however, has revealed that Hampton often relied on layers of insulation board to construct the armature of each piece. The framework of several units consists of hollow cardboard cylinders removed from rolls of carpeting. In other cases, the original furniture is easily identified. The throne chair, for example, is essentially an old armchair, complete with faded red cushion, while two semicircular pieces are a large round table sawed in half.
Many of the larger objects rise from square or rectangular bases equipped with rusty metal casters to facilitate moving them. Small stands are formed by drawers turned upside-down and mounted on cheap glass vases. Jelly glasses and light bulbs covered with foil often complete tops and corners of objects, while construction paper and cardboard are the foundations for decorative forms such as stars and wings. The edges of tables are sometimes trimmed with slender tubes of electrical cable camouflaged with gold foil. Rows of small knobs are made of balls of crumpled foil or newspaper covered with foil. Glittering gold and silver dominate the color scheme. Touches of green are provided by desk blotters used to cover table tops and other areas. Tan cardboard and construction paper (faded from a deep purple) lend a more subdued note to the ensemble. Other variations, unnoticed until the objects are examined closely, are small areas of manila paper covered with intricate designs drawn with blue and brown ink.
Hampton's unusual application of materials provides delightful surprises and arouses curiosity about his construction methods. The artist glued or nailed strips of cardboard or metal (cut from coffee cans) to connect the major vertical elements with horizontal bases. Upholstery tacks, small nails, and simple sewing pins were used to attach most of the structural and decorative elements. The foil was either wrapped or glued; in many instances wrapped foil was the only means of keeping all of the parts together, as the nails and pins were not long enough to pierce every layer of material. This naive, additive method accounts for the fragility of most of the objects.
A makeshift wooden platform set against the wall at the far end of the building was Hampton's only major structural addition to the garage. Most of the objects on the platform were arranged in three roughly parallel rows, with the remaining pieces set on the floor immediately in front and along the side walls. There is no evidence that Hampton had any assistance in constructing this "stage" or in moving the large objects (many of which must be lifted by two people to ensure safe handling). Detailed plans were not found in the garage or boarding house after his death, yet because Hampton was severely limited in space, he must have carefully visualized the organization at the outset. Pieces intended for the upper level were probably constructed on the platform and rolled into position on casters. The size and number of objects concentrated at one end of the garage with little space between them created an effect of overwhelming density. A generally frontal, horizontal orientation and the unifying brightness of the foil give The Throne, despite the fragility of its parts, a sturdy and solid appearance.
The throne chair at the rear center of the platform is the heart of the assemblage. Pairs of objects, matching almost exactly in all details, including dimensions, were placed in corresponding locations, radiating out from each side. In addition, each object is, in itself, symmetrical along several axes. Labels on objects indicate that to the viewer's left (or, to the "right hand of God") the pieces refer to the New Testament, Jesus, and Grace. To the viewer's right, the system is based on the Old Testament, Moses, and Law. While many of the forms--throne or mercy seat, altar table, pulpits, offertory tables, and chairs--suggest traditional church appointments, the purpose of others is obscure. Reinforcing the distinction between the Old and New Testaments are wooden plaques decorated with foil and ink designs and hung on the side walls of the garage. Those on the left bear the names of the Apostles, to the right are the Prophets.
Hampton did not record an explanation of the underlying religious impulse for The Throne, but from scattered clues found on the pieces themselves, it is possible to decipher part of his message. Attached to many of the objects are labels with references to the Millennium and Revelation chapters 20 and 21, which describe the first Resurrection, the judgment of the dead before God, and the new heaven and earth. On one of the pieces Hampton wrote: "The word millennium means 'the return of Christ and part of the Kingdom of God on earth.'" Deeply affected by the Book of Revelation, Hampton must have believed in the inevitability of the Second Coming; he, in fact, told one friend that they were living in the last millennium. The Throne may have been built to ensure his personal salvation as well as to warn and instruct others. An adage found on his bulletin board is telling: "Where There Is No Vision The People Perish." Visionary experiences and the expectation of a Second Coming of Christ are not uncommon among the fundamentalist members of the black community, and Hampton's Baptist background is likely to have shaped his subsequent religious focus.
Intriguing parallels exist between certain details of the Book of Revelation and The Throne. When God showed Saint John the events of the Second Coming in a vision, he instructed John to record them in a little book in a cryptic language. Hampton may have believed that he had received a similarly portentous vision, for in addition to building The Throne, he developed an as yet undeciphered script and on the bottom of each page wrote "Revelation." Named as author of the book is Saint James, Hampton's chosen eponym, suggesting that although a humble man, he may, nonetheless, have fancied himself a holy figure or prophet like Saint John. The book may contain Hampton's translation of John's revelations, or, possibly, an entirely original religion based on his own vision. The script also appears on labels attached to each object, usually following an English word or phrase, suggesting a translation into his mysterious language. Composed of graceful characters resembling those of semitic or oriental languages, the script is the product of an uneducated man who printed his misspelled English words in childlike capital letters. It may indeed be inspired writing or it may be an artistic creation devoid of meaning.
The Throne parallels the Book of Revelation in other respects. John saw God on a throne of shining silver and gold surrounded by a multitude of angels, and Hampton obviously strove to capture that splendor. The birdlike wing forms, his dominant decorative motif, may have been his interpretation of the angels described by John. Whether or not Hampton actually expected his throne to be occupied at the Second Coming is not known.
Despite Hampton's Baptist background, he was not a member of a congregation in Washington. Believing that there is only one God, Hampton considered different religions unnecessary. An important encounter with the Reverend A. J. Taylor, a popular black minister who died in 1936, may have occurred in one of the neighborhood churches he occasionally visited. The Mount Airy Baptist Church, where Taylor served, was not far from Hampton's boarding house, and it is possible that the Reverend inspired Hampton during a revival meeting or Sunday sermon. Tyler was noted for having said that in Washington, the city of monuments, there were no monuments to Jesus. During his ministry, he installed an electric sign, "Monument to Jesus," over the door of the Mount Airy Baptist Church. Hampton may have been intrigued by the minister's idea for a monument to Jesus; the word "monument" is entered in one of his notebooks, and numerous references to A. J. Tyler appear in the assemblage. Many pieces bear labels reading "Tyler Baptist Church," although Tyler never preached in a church of that name. Hampton also indicated in his notebooks that Saint James was the pastor of "The Tyler Baptist Church." Tyler may thus have been a model and an inspiration for Hampton, whose commemoration of the Reverend seems to have mingled freely with his belief in the Second Coming.
As one concentrates on the radiance, decorative patterns, and eccentric improvisation of The Throne, Hampton's primary intention--to create a vehicle for religious renewal and teaching--may be overlooked. Preserved and admired as a work of art, however, The Throne reaches an audience far larger than he could ever have hoped for. Whether its audience is aesthetically or spiritually inspired, Hampton's work stands as remarkable testimony to his devotion, patience, faith, and imagination.