Artist of the Month | The Throne of James Hampton
Welcome to Artist of the Month!
Yes, that’s right we’re not limiting ourselves to music with this series. If you enjoyed our Music of the Month article, then strap yourself in for another series where we will be exploring both the artists of the past and today!
If you want to expand your repertoire of visual artists, then make sure to check in every month for a new addition to our catalogue of fantastic artists you need to know about.
This month we will be exploring the life and artwork of James Hampton, an ‘outsider’ artist who lived and worked in Washington from 1946 to his untimely death in 1964.
Who is James Hampton?
While James Hampton has posthumously been described as a seminal Washington street artist, he wouldn’t have likely accredited himself as such. Instead, his junk sculptures would hold a religious function and a calling, which he would dedicate himself to for nearly twenty years.
By day he was a ‘short-order cook and janitor, a veteran and a foot servant to bureaucracy’, but by night he would become Saint James – ‘Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity’ – creator of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
Little is known about James Hampton for he seems to have been a reclusive man with few connections or past times outside of his official work and nightly ‘artistic’ endeavours. He never married, had few acquaintances, and lived alone in a small apartment on the northwest of Washington.
However, what we do know is that he was born in Elloree, South Carolina, on April 8th, 1909, to James Hampton Sr. and Sarah (Johnson) Hampton. His father, in addition to singing and preaching the gospel, turned to a life of crime (eventually working in a chain gang), and would ultimately abandon his wife and four children for this itinerant life.
In 1928, Hampton would leave South Carolina to join his older brother, Lee Hampton, in Washington. From 1939 to 1942 he would work as a cook before being drafted into the army, serving with the 385th Aviation Squadron, a segregated unit, whose purpose was to maintain airstrips in Saipan and Guam (two islands within the western Pacific Ocean and commonwealths of the United States). By 1945, Hampton would be awarded the Bronze Star and receive an honourable discharge.
He would subsequently return to Washington and by 1946 would begin working as a janitor for the General Services Administration (G.S.A); continuing to do so until his death (caused by stomach cancer) in 1964.
James Hampton’s ‘Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly’
While it is believed that Hampton was working on ‘The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly’ as early as 1945 (while stationed in Guam), he would begin to fully dedicate himself to its creation in 1950 after renting out a garage on 7th street in northwest Washington.
Nearly every night, for 14-years, Hampton would walk the streets of his city for items to scavenge for his creation, placing anything he found of interest into his gunny sack and child’s wagon. These materials would range from old furniture, pieces of cardboard, light bulbs, jelly jars, shards of a mirror, and old furniture.
These would all be taken back to his garage, wrapped in metallic foils, purple paper (now faded to tan), and a selection of other materials, so that they could be built into a variety of sculptures or more acutely religious artifacts.
These creations would consist of nearly 180 components, including an altar, throne, offertory tables, pulpits, mercy seats, alongside a host of other objects.
They would be organised symmetrically, in which items were divided into mirrored halves that would honour both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Objects placed on the right side of the throne
For Hampton, this collection would not simply offer an aesthetically or academically appealing installation but act as a practical apparatus for the second coming of Christ.
Since 1931, he would receive spiritual visions regarding this subject
Hampton’s Throne was based on a series of religious visions he had, that prompted him to focus on preparing for Christ’s return. He had written that he received visits from God, from Moses in 1931, from the Virgin in 1946, and Adam in 1949, on the day of Truman’s Presidential inauguration. The artwork’s name is a reference to ancient scriptures that cited the realm of God as the ‘heaven of heavens’.
Hoping to create a monument to Christ in Washington, Hampton combined Christian and African-American spiritual practices, with objects that referred to the Old and New Testaments, as well as aesthetic influences from Vodou, Santería and Candomblé.
Made of discarded materials and old furniture, the Throne was praised as America’s greatest work of visionary art. Hampton worked almost every day on this project and its meaning was extremely close to him. The Throneacted as a revelation of humanity’s faith in God and the hope for salvation.
The main ethos of the piece is emphasised by the words ‘FEAR NOT’, which are written at the crest of the Throne’s foundation – an old maroon, cushioned armchair. Many of the quotes that are inscribed on the objects were taken from the Book of Revelation, and the wall plaques on both sides have written on them the names of apostles, biblical patriarchs and prophets, such as Ezekiel and Abraham.
Hampton’s work, following a speech on salvation, is based on biblical prophecies, such as St. John’s vision of God seated on a throne and surrounded by angels or Judgment Day.
Alongside the Throne, Hampton left a large array of texts written by him as a spiritual script, that he understood as the word of God that was being received by him. A compilation of 108 pages, the notebook was titled St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation.
While the majority of the text was written in an unknown and undeciphered script, some of it is accompanied by notes in English written by Hampton himself.
Each page of the book was ended with the word Revelation, linking his work once again with the Book of Revelation. This focus on Revelation allowed Hampton to follow a symbolic and spiritual path, where through an allegory, he could represent the ongoing struggle between evil and good, and where the future of humanity lays.
After Hampton died in 1964, the owner of the garage where Hampton worked on his Throne went to find out why the rent was not being paid and discovered his work.
As Hampton’s sister refused to keep the artwork, it was placed in an advert. Art collector Alice Denney, along with art dealers Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp, and artist Robert Rauschenberg, went to see the exhibit of the Throne at the garage.
The artwork was praised by the assistant director of the Smithsonian Art Museum, Harry Lowe, who argued that walking into that garage ‘was like opening Tut’s tomb.’
On December 15, 1964, Hampton’s story and work became public, and in 1970, Lowe donated the Throne to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, after paying Hampton’s outstanding rent and taking possession of the piece.
Hampton’s Throne opened up a new understanding of American art by creating a masterpiece through the mundane. His work has had a thorough influence on other artists.
Writer and poet Denis Johnson published a poetry book under the name The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New, with one poem being named after Hampton’s work.
In 2007, the indie group Le Loup named their debut album The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
Also in 2007, composer Jefferson Friedman premiered a musical piece titled The Throne of the Third Heaven, commissioned by The ASCAP Foundation and the National Symphony Orchestra.
A short story was published in 2018 by author Tommy Orange named The State, that also referenced Hampton and the Throne.
This shocking and monumental piece has managed to stay relevant due to its spiritual meaning, the mysterious background behind the artist, and the fantastic use of discarded material to make it.
Over 50 years after James Hampton’s Throne became known, his life’s work is still influencing artists and having an impact on almost everyone who sees it for the first time.
After working in secret for 14 years, Hampton finally received the praise he deserved. An ‘outsider’ artist who produced ‘one of the finest works of visionary religious art’– we are definitely here for that.
Tune in next month to keep learning about more impressive and phenomenal artists!
Illustrated by Andrea Miranda