James Hampton and Audience

One of my friends recently saw James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly (ca. 1950-1964, shown left) on display in a folk art exhibition. Her mention of this piece brought back two memories for me. First, I remembered being struck by this piece a few years ago when visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I was impressed to learn that Hampton created his altarpiece over a period of fourteen years. Hampton wasn’t an artist by profession; he worked as a janitor. He kept his creation in a rented garage and continually built up the piece with found objects and discarded materials. Hampton then collected and then covered with shimmering metallic foil and purple paper (the latter now faded to a tan color).

When my friend mentioned seeing this work of art, it also brought back a second memory: a conversation that I had with an art history student last spring. We were discussing whether it is important for a work of art to have an audience, and this student brought up the example of Hampton. My student felt that Hampton was not interested in having anyone see his work: Hampton worked for years to create this piece, and yet he seemed to have kept his project a secret. His relatives did not learn about his project until after Hampton had died of stomach cancer. Even the man who owned Hampton’s garage seemed unaware of what Hampton was creating in the rented space.

I can understand why the student had come to this conclusion, but I pointed out a few things which indicate that Hampton intended his work to have an audience. For example, it has been noted that he hoped to open a storefront ministry and use his artistic composition as the centerpiece for the ministry. This is a pretty sure indication that he wanted his art to be viewed by others. But we can also look to the work of art for clues that a viewer/audience is presupposed. One could argue that the phrase “FEAR NOT” (at the top of the central piece) is a visual indication that Hampton wanted an audience, since he obviously wanted those words to be read by someone (most likely someone other than himself).

Nonetheless, I’m the first to admit that there are some baffling things about Hampton’s altarpiece. The work contains notebooks, plaques and tags that are written in some kind of secret language (which one scholar has called “Hamptonese“). Did Hampton intend for his audience to see this secret writing system? Or were these written areas intended only for Hampton to see? Does this supposed gibberish indicate that Hampton was mentally unstable? I suppose we’ll never know.

  • Rebekah says:

    Is it a tiny bit snarky if I say that this takes me right back home???http://www.summum.us/pyramid/

  • heidenkind says:

    We'll never know? That's a little cynical! I'm terrible at cracking codes, but if people can figure out how to read Maya, I'm sure someone can decipher Hamptonese.

    This reminded me of Duchamp's l'Etant Donnes. He also worked on that in secret for 20 years, and it was only exhibited after his death. I don't think anyone would argue that he never wanted it exhibited, but it is a very strange, mysterious, personal work.

  • e says:

    I think Hampton was a really interesting fellow (from the little I've read about him). The piece is pretty darn impressive in person (as I'm sure you remember). It's so large and so detailed. It's amazing to think how much work he put into it. I'm glad you mentioned the "fear not" part. I'm disappointed that the picture I took of it didn't pick it up.

    I'm really happy for Hampton, too. Can you imagine having some piece you worked on for years in a garage end up in a Smithsonian? Wow.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M!

    Without knowing Hampton's history, particularly of his personal views and mental state it is speculative at best to ruminate of 'what he might have thought'

    The creation of that piece seemed to satisfy some urge in him – and that is all that is required to create art!

    Goya's black paintings were also for his eyes only for many years. Combined with an analysis of Goya and the times he lived in, the black paintings tell us about Goya's reaction to his times, as opposed to his thoughts on an audience for his work. Hence, the truth about the Hampton piece lies in Hampton's life story, surely?


  • M says:

    Rebekah – Ha! I didn't think of Gilgal park, but I can see the similarity (well, similarities as much as I know about the garden – I've never been there).

    Heidenkind – Perhaps I didn't explain myself too well. I do think that we may be able to crack Hamptonese one day, but I'm not sure if we'll ever be able to confirm/deny Hampton's mental stability (since he isn't alive anymore and available for analysis).

    And I had never heard of Duchamp's "L'Etat Donnes" before you mentioned it. How interesting! Here's a link about the work, if anyone is interested. I especially love that Duchamp said that he was giving up art in order to devote himself to chess! How Duchampian – he gave up his game of art (though not entirely, as evidenced by "L'Etat Donnes") for chess, another game.

    e, I sometimes wonder how Hampton would feel about his piece being in the Smithsonian. I'm sure he would be honored, but I wonder if he would be surprised. After all, he wasn't an artist by profession, and I wonder if he even considered himself to be an artist. Nonetheless, I'm glad that the work is in the collection. It's so interesting and detailed (like you said).

    H Niyazi: You're right – we can only speculate what Hampton "might have thought."

    I like that you brought up the example of Goya. From what we can tell, Goya probably never intended the Black Paintings to be exhibited. (Of course, this is supposing that Goya actually painted the Black Paintings. I think that he did, but there is an interesting counter theory which suggests that the paintings are not by Goya, but perhaps Goya's son Javier.)

  • H Niyazi says:

    @M > The counter theory is not much of a theory… more like speculation. It raised questions, sure, but not a convincing argument to verify attribution to another painter.

    Call me a whacky scientist, but I'd like to see an analysis of pigments and under-surfaces between known Goya works and his son. I wonder if that would open a can of worms the Prado would dread the impact of should it verify attributions against the elder Goya!


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.