"The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations General Assembly," after years of traveling after gathering much fame has been returned to Washington as the Christians say, for good.
James Hampton (1909-1964) rests in peace. Downtown 7th Street NW. his neighborhood, is once again prepared for the Second Coming, Hampton's gleaming Throne - made of tin foil, old light bulbs - his orbs and crowns and altars, the throne room he prepared for the hosts of heaven, has now been placed on public view in gallery 3-D of the National Collection of Fine Arts.
Though it shines in splendor there something is not right. Art museums dim the holly and Hampton's fragile shirne is a work of faith.
He did not call himself an artist. Sometimes he would walk the street carrying a sack picking up old chairs, wine bottles and cardboard. In one of his two lives he was almost friendless, poor and black, a janitor who labored for the GSA.
At midnight, when he finished, James Hampton would return to the garage he rented, for $50 a month, that opened to the alley behind 1133 7th St. NW. There he donned his shining crown, did is holy work, and signed himself Saint James.
For at least 14 years, perhaps for much longer, Hampton worked alone at night on a throne room for the Savior Hampton made 180 objects, and worked with tacky stuff - Jelly glasses, burnt out light bulbs, Government-green blotters crinkled sheets of golden foil from liquor store displays. Hampton, who was born in Elloree, S.C., often read his Bible. And he spoke with God.
Once, in his garage, he copied down a verse from Revelations:
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me. Write: for these words are true and faithful.
Hampton did as he was bid. He wrote, "This is true, that the Great Moses, the giver of the 10 Commandments, appeared in Washington April 11, 1931." And, "This is true that on Oct. 2, 1946, the Great Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem appeared over nation's capital." And, "This is true that Adam, the first man God created, appeared in person on Jan. 20, 1949, this was on the day of President Truman's inauguration." Some of these inscriptions - in the throne room there are dozens - appear on little tags tied to the tin foil with string.
Hampton's Throne is beautiful. While it was on tour, Robert Hughes of Time magazine wrote it "may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American." What strikes one first is radiance. Hampton's cardboard forms, sheathed in shining gold and silver foil, conjure for the viewer a rich, ecstatic vision of cherubs, golden orbs, seven-pointed stars, temples, angels' wings.
The cherubs have no faces, the columns are not fluted, the butterfly-shaped wings are not attached to bodies. Nothing is explicit. The viewer's eye is swept along by symmetries and rhythms and an ever-present gleam.
Hampton died of cancer 13 years ago. "You can't just destroy something a man devoted himself to," said Myer Wertlieb, Hampton's landlord, who, instead, called the papers. In December 1964, Harry Lowe of the National Collection read a brief account of Hampton's "tinsel vision," and went to 7th Street to see. "Imagine what it was like to slide back that heavy warehouse door and see all that glittering inside," he said. It was through Lowe's good offices that "The Throne of the Third Heaven" entered the collection of the National Collection of Fine Arts.
Visionary folk art is currently in fashion. When Hampton's throne is studied, Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, S. P. Dinsomoor's Garden of Eden, and other symbol-filled environments frequently are discussed.
"There are other precedents, too," says Lowe. "There was a lady in Birmingham who had her Cadillac plated with gold. She knew the Savior was due, and she was going to drive him around. People do have trunk lines to the Lord."
Standing there before the throne, Lowe spoke of its subleties and energy, the layerings of its surfaces, its colors and its symmetry. "You know," said Harry Lowe, "I never remember how good it is. I remember the dazzle, the Gee Whiz. Then I stand before it and am astonished once again."
Hampton kept a record of his revelations, but did so in a script of his own invention that has not been deciphered. When his heavy door was opened, and his throne discovered, an injunction, in English, was found on the wall. It said, "Where There Is No Vision The People Perish."