He was a street artist, like his father, the son of a black gospel singer and itinerant preacher -- also called James -- who left the rural South at 19 to make his way in Washington. He walked the side streets of this city with a gunny sack and child's wagon, collecting discarded light bulbs, jelly glasses and gold foil as material for that work which would ensure his salvation. He was a shortorder cook and janitor, a veteran and a foot servant to bureaucracy. He was a junk sculptor who worked in the detritus of his adopted city. He was a visionary, a sort of black William Blake, whom Jesus met each night at the head of an alley to escort safely past the junkies and winos to the unheated stable where he performed his holy tasks. He was a craftsman of such unconscious sophistication that the most accomplished artists of his day would hail him as peer. He was possessed of a postwar consciousness as reflective of the 1950s as that of Rauschenberg or Chuck Berry. Above all, he was a Washington artist. He was Saint James, "Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity" and creator of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly -- one of the great puzzles of contemporary sculpture -- which criic Robert Hughes has suggested "may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American."
James Hamption's Throne sits in Gallery 3-D of the National Museum of American Art in an explosion of light. It perches there, vibrant, like a giant bird -- filling one whole room with its assemblage of gold foil, silver foil and efflorescent parts. Its every limb is winged, a frail rope all that restrains the thing from collecting itself onto its haunches and taking off.
Several moments pass before one can see that its pieces are, in fact, stationary. It is difficult to think other than of some massive bird of prey. One is awestruck at first viewing, speechless. And what one perceives, ultimately, to be an altar backed by a winged throne with its legend fear not does little to ease distress.
It is comforting to think of Hampton's Throne as art, convenient now that the piece lies enshrined in the Smithsonian. But imagine it as it was found, in a brick stable behind 1133 Seventh St. NW, one month after Hampton's death in 1964, by an impatient landlord who forced a padlock and flung open the doors to this glittering display.
Meyer Wertleib was no art critic. He was a white pawnbroker and merchant in a black ghetto, and he had rented the stable to Hampton since 1950, at $50 a month. But even he could guess that this assemblage of pulpits, lecterns, standards, altars, plaques and crowns -- more than 180 pieces -- was worth saving. Hampton's sister, who had come to claim his body, did not want it. So Wertleib contacted The Washington Post. "You can't just destroy something a man devoted himself to for 14 years," he told a reporter. Hampton had once said: "That's my life, I'll finish it before I die." The Throne was apparently incomplete. "It seems to me an example of the futility of life," Wertleib reflected. He advertised the stable for rent, with vague ideas of selling The Throne or tossing it out as junk.
For junk it was, a meticulous concatenation of old light bulbs, desk blotters, glasses, armchairs, tables, newspaper, and foil hustled from the whiskey bottles of bums. Ed Kelly, a sculptor in search of a studio, answered Wertleib's ad and, visiting the stable, suffered a typical response. "I was overwhelmed. Hampton had a dozen 500-watt bulbs around the ceiling, and everything shone." Kelly caught a sense of The Throne as art, and contacted Alice Denney, a collector and art figure around Washington, and she likewise was astounded. A number of art folk such as Leo Catelli, Ivan Karp and Robert Rauschenberg were in town for a Corcoran Biennial, and she brought them down to see it. Rauschengerg, particularly, was impressed. The Throne was so close to what he had been doing in mixed media, with found objects and junk surfaces, he could not believe his eyes.
Alice Denney was eager to save it. She was vice commissioner of the Venice Biennale , had been assistant director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and would found Washington Project for the Arts -- she had clout. She dragged anyone she could to the stable for a viewing: artists, ambassadors, congressmen. Limousines were trailing through the alley back of St Stephen's Baptist Church in platoons. Denney contacted Hampton's sister and attempted to gain legal possession of The Throne, but before she succeeded, Harry Lowe of what was then the National Collection of Find Arts paid Wertleib his back rent, and acquired the piece for the Smithsonian.
Harry Lowe's reaction to the first sighting was predictable: "It was like opening Tut's tomb."
What added considerably to the spookiness of The Throne were its accouterments. There was a looseleaf notebook with the title, "Archives of the State of Eternity." There were tags on several pieces with the inscriptions: "This is true, that the great Moses, the giver of the 10th commandment, appeared in Washington April 11, 1931." And, "This is true that on October 2, 1946, the great Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem appeared over the nation's capital." And, "This is true that Adam, the first man God created, appeared in person on January 20, 1949. This was on the day of President Truman's inauguration." Everywhere were references to the Book of Revelation, and the word "dispensation." In a small book and on plaques around the stable were elegant hieroglyphics, hand printed in stark contrast to Hampton's childish penmanship. The figures were symmetric, or oriental. They were indecipherable. On many pieces of The Throne was an inked symbol, likewise inscrutable. It was shaped like a rocket, or a plane. Tacked to a bulletin board in one corner of Hampton's stable was the message: "Where There Is No Vision, The People Perish."
That Hampton was a man of vision, no one could refute. But what exactly was his vision? On one level, The Throne was visual interpretation of the Book of Revelation, where God, flanked by his angels, sat upon "a great white throne" to judge the quick and the dead. Hampton believed in the Second Coming. He had written: "the word millenium [sic] means 'the return of Christ and a part of the Kingdom of God on earth.'" Hew considered himself "Director of Special Projects," a verger to the holy bureaucracy. He had seen Moses, Mary and Adam with his own eyes, and believed God oversaw his work eachnight in the stable. That work was both a warning against and a preparation for apocalypse. Hampton called himself Saint James and had been photographed wearing a golden crown. Who was this prophet of Seventh Street?
Few people, in 1965, knew. The newpapers reported that Hampton had been a laborer for the General Services Administration, and had died at age 53. Wertlieb remembered him as a quiet, unassuming man who paid his rent promptly. He was small and bespectacled. He lived in furnished rooms. He was the sort of man who, in death, generated more curiosity than in life. And that curiosity was intense. Professors James L. Foy and James P. McMurrer of Georgetown University's department of psychiatry wrote a paper about him for a scholarly journal. The Throne traveled to museums in Williamsburg, Minneapolis, Boston and Montgomery, and to the Whitney in New York. The contemporary art world, figuratively speaking, was at his feet. But it was not until the National Museum of American Art put an intern named Linda Hartigan on the case full time that an inclusive portrait of Hampton emerged.
He had been born April 8, 1909, in Elloree, S.C. His father, in addition to singing and preaching the gospel, had pursued a life of crime and worked on chain gangs. 'e had abandoneed his family. At 19, James Hampton left South Carolina and joined his older brother, Lee, in Washington. From 1939 to 1942 he worked as a cook before landing a job with the government. He was drafted into the Army and served with the 385th Aviation Squadron at home and on Saipan and Guam. His duties as a noncombatant included carpentry and maintenance of airstrips. He was awarded the Bronze Star and honorably discharged in 1945. In 1946, he was hired by the Government Services Administration as a janitor, a job he retained until his death.
The most remarkable events in Hampton's life wwere the visions he had and his work with The Throne. They seemed inexrricably linked. His first documented vision had occurred when he was 22 years old, the last when he was 41. These visions were not dreams, but personal visitations. God and his suordinates spoke to 'ampton, directing him in his work upon The Throne. Hampton did not advertise these visitations, and he never proselytized for his beliefs. He showed acquaintenances, mostly women, his work and tried to interest a few churches in accepting it. But he was no hysteric. He seemed reconciled, by the end of his life, to anonymity. Perhaps he would found his own church: "The Tyler Baptist," named for a pastor Hampton admired.
Linda Hartigan worked for nine months on Hampton's history and came up with little. Yet there was something haunting about the man's life. He was so anonymous. His service and government records had been lost in a fire in St. Louis. His brother, Lee, had died mysteriously in 1949. What family Hartigan could locate were reluctant to provide information. They were intimidated by calls from Washington and vaguely frightened of The Throne. It was a powerful item. Hampton never married, and his closest friend was a woman with whom he shared a car pool. She remembered him as diligent and religious, a reserved and humble man who showed his work modestly and believed that one was rewarded in heaven for what one accomplished on earth.
If there was a key to Hampton vision, some "Rosebud" which might explain his life, it lay with The Throne itself.
The earlies viewer of Hampton's Throne who is still alive is a woman named Otelia Whitehead -- whe visited Hampton's workplace during the 1940s. Whitehead, a registered nurse and a cosmopolitan woman, suffered this reaction:
"I was speechless. A cab driver brought me to the alley, saying there's something here you really must see. Mr. Hampton opened the door and it was like the wings of Gabriel wwere beating in the extremely bright light. Mr. Hampton showed me each piece, speaking of the millennium and Armageddon. 'You may live to see it,' he said. 'You might be here when He comes again.' Mr. Hampton was sleeping in that space, on a couch, with an electric burner for heat. Despite the poorness of the surroundings, I felt the presence of some unknown force. I returned to visit Mr. Hampton a dozen occasions. No one could sit on The Throne, but he would permit you to approach it on your knees. I knelt before the Mercy Seat and it was like praying before a great altar."
Last year, Whitehead, who considers herself psychic, was pronounced clinically dead. She was resuscitated, but in that limbo between life and death she had a vision of James Hampton. He was standing beside a man who may or may not have been Jesus, and he was motioning her back.
"My work was not done," Whitehead said. "I've thought and thought about his meaning, but I always come back to The Throne. There are mysteries there which have not been solved."
In a storage bin off Harry Lowe's office at the National Museum of American Art is the notebook in which James Hampton recorded his secret language. It is titled, The Book of the 7 Dispensations by St. James , and the word "Revelation" is written on every page. It is this notebook which Otelia Whitehead believes may hold the key to Hampton's visions. The Smithsonian already has had several cryptographers try to dicipher it. They have been unsuccessful. There are priests at Catholic University to whom Whitehead would show the book, and Linda Hartigan has considered submitting it to the Vatican. If all this begins to sound like The Exorcist , take heart. Research is often the stepchild of speculation.
Sticking to the notion of Hampton's Throne as the result of his close reading of the Bible, the Book of Dispensation finds its niche. When God previewed the Second Coming for John the divine, he commanded him to write what he saw in a book. Thus, the Book of Revelation. Hampton may have considered himself a latter-day prophet, but his vision, unlike John's, seems to have been incomplete. Empty notebooks were found with the Book of Dispensation , as it ready to be filled. It seems Hampton's secret language was either some psychic shorthand for the visions he'd had, and expected, or decorative art.
The use of secret languages and cryptic symbols is not unusual among visionaries. Hampton saw something, which h tried to describe, but it may not have been the Lord.
In all of Washington, the object most resembling The Throne is not sculpture, not environment, not architecture, but the lunar module from the Apollo space program displayed in the sotheast corner of the Air and Space Museum. The LEM, with its god and silver skin, its aluminized plastic films to deflect sunlight and cold, is like something from James Hampton's dreams. That is was designed to perch at the tip of a Saturn rocket, rather than in the nave of a church, is telling. The third heaven Hampton envisioned may have had less to do with religious ecstasy than physcial space.
The conflict between UFO logistics and fundamentalist visionaries, as to who experienced what and why, is as old as the Bermuda Triangle. UROlogists content that biblical visitations may have been ancient meddl;ings of extraterrestrials. Findamentalist scream "Heresy!" Suffice it to say, the symbol Hamptondrew, in its field of shimmering energy, may or may not be a rocket. The crowns that wwere strewn about the stable, and upon which the symbol is sketched, may or may not be protective headgear. And the wings, which seem ready to lift The Throne like a prehistoric bird, or a vehicle, amy or may not be functional. People have visions and they attempt to reconstruct them, through language or art. Something from another world may have visited James Hampton, and whether it was "piloted" by angels or astronauts, it is unlikely that even he could say.
What Hampton saw, as a religious visionary, is lost to him. What he foresaw, as a postwar artist, we may interpret. It was the age of space: not Cape Canaveral and the Apollo program, but that decade of apocalypse which became the 1960s. He was a prophet of cultural Armageddon. By his death in 1964, he had seen the march of Martin Luther King upon Washington, men in space, the murder of John Kennedy, the birth of rock and roll, and the threat of nuclear holocaust.
He was a prophet of nuclear angst. Returning to Washington in 1945, a veteran of the armed forces that had bombed Hiroshima, he had taken up work on his Throne. Consider what nuclear war must have meant to a fundamentalist like Hampton. The day of judgment was at hand, and Hampton's task was to construct an early warning system, a holy ark that might alert the unrepentant and whisk away the faithful. That he used the bureaucratese of official Washington -- and of the United Nations, which pledged to bind up the hemisphere's wounds -- to catalogue The Throne's parts and cross-file its mysteries, is not surprise. That he worked in the materials of his "disposable" society, the jelly glasses and kitchen foil of and Ozzie 'n' Harriet economy, may have been intentionally ironic. The final result is as evocative of that hyper-productive malaise that was the postwar mindset, as the work of more intellectual artists.
Hampton was a street artist, like Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Stankiewicz, in that he worked with junk objects which, in their reassemblage, screamed the contradictions of urban life: its richness and decay, its inspiration and despair. The Throne is trash worshiped as wealth.
Hampton's archetypal metropolis may have been the "shining city" of Revelation, but Washington was his close second. To the rural black, it was the land of opportunity. Abraham Lincoln sat upon a great white throne, and there was employment for many. By the end of Hampton's life, Washington's richness and his own poverty must have appeared the bleakest of contradictions. Seventh Street and the "monumental" style of James Hampton were eons removed from the lushness of the Mall. Yet the street wisdom of his vision was prophetic. In four years the Seventh Street corridor would lie gutted by 1968's riots, victim of a sparser apocalypse. Hampton's Throne was both a warning and a vehicle for escape.
There are those who believe The Throne should be more accessible to poor residents. Alice Denney, if she'd acquired it, would have displayed Hampton's vision in a storefront on G Street. Something about its police badge glitter, its Hells Angels flutter and Teutonic strut demands a more visible forum. She had wanted to tow it on a float in Lyndon B. Johnson's inaugural, as a reprsentative piece of Washington art.
That Hampton was a spokesman for black Washington is not lost on those who do go to the museum to view the throne. Some feel the hieroglyphics to be Egyptian in spirit, reflective of Hampton's awareness of his African heritage. Others sense the irony of his use of urban materials. In everyone is a respectful awe.
"Few people know it's here," a guard said recently. "I bring in friends, and kids on Sunday. Others would come if they knew. The man was strange. But this was his vision of things. It's like a flower or a letter someone left behind."
Outside, on Gallery Place, a street singer ululates in the canyons like the ghost of Hampton's father. Brightly painted kiosks lie about the concrete like beached spacecraft. The music is the gospel of the spheres, scarcely audible in Gallery 3-D. There, a George Segal figure stands at the curtain of a tenement window and stares. She is white as milkglass, a moon-maid sentinel without benefit of mufti. A stranger approaches, glancing left, to cheerful paintings, then right, to something her eye has not prepared him for. It is an explosion of light. It perches there, vibrant, like a giant bird, filling one whole room with . . .