James Hampton


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(1909–64). Assemblage artist. An untrained African-American religious visionary, his only known work is an installation painstakingly assembled in a Washington, D.C., garage. The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1950–64) represents a vast and splendid summary of the artist's spiritual beliefs. Constructed from old furniture, as well as other humble and cast-off materials, the work nevertheless shimmers with divine fervor. Although the general outline of its meaning has been deciphered, elements of the work's complex iconography remain elusive. It is likely that Hampton considered the work unfinished when he died. The altarlike work features a central, elevated throne, prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This is flanked by intricately elaborated, symmetrically paired objects. Although the artist used a variety of materials to introduce color, aluminum and gold foil predominate, providing transcendent luster. His symbolic program refers to the Old Testament on the throne's left and New Testament on the right. Crowned with the words “Fear Not,” the work includes inscriptions that identify some elements, but others are labeled in a secret handwriting that has not been decoded. The ensemble comprises about 180 pieces in a configuration that measures approximately twenty-seven feet wide. A native of Elloree, South Carolina, Hampton moved to Washington around 1928. Following military service between 1942 and 1945, he worked as a janitor for the General Services Administration. Although he had probably begun fabricating the work elsewhere, about 1950 he arranged to rent the garage where he worked in solitude for the rest of his life. Almost no one knew of his spare-time obsession until after his death.

From The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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