James Hampton was an American outsider artist from Washington, D.C., who worked as a janitor and secretly built a large assemblage of religious art from scavenged materials known as the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Art critic Robert Hughes of Time magazine wrote that the Throne “may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American.”
James Hampton was born in 1909 in Elloree, South Carolina as one of four children to James Sr. and Sarah (Johnson) Hampton. His father, who had abandoned the family, was a gospel singer and a traveling Baptist preacher who was also a known criminal who had worked on chain gangs. In 1928, Hampton moved to Washington, D.C. and shared an apartment with his older brother Lee. Hampton worked as a short-order cook until 1943 when he was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces. He served with the 385th Aviation Squadron in Texas, Hawaii and in the jungles of Saipan and Guam. The segregated unit was noncombatant and duties included carpentry and maintenance of airstrips. Hampton built a small, shrine-like object during his time in Guam that he later incorporated into his larger artwork. He was awarded the Bronze Star and was honorably discharged in 1945, after which he returned to Washington. In 1946, Hampton was hired by the General Services Administration as a janitor and worked there until his death.
Death and discovery of the display
Hampton died of stomach cancer on November 4, 1964, at the Veteran’s Hospital in Washington. He is interred at the Warren Chapel Baptist Church in Elloree, South Carolina.
The art was not discovered until after Hampton’s death in 1964, when the owner of the garage, Meyer Wertlieb, came to find out why the rent had not been paid. He knew that Hampton had been building something in the garage. When he opened the door, he found a room filled with the artwork.
Hampton had kept his project secret from most of his friends and family. His relatives first heard about it when his sister came to claim his body. When Hampton’s sister refused to take the artwork, the landlord placed an advertisement in local newspapers. Ed Kelly, a sculptor, answered the advertisement and was so astounded by the exhibit, he contacted art collector Alice Denney. Denney brought art dealers Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp, and artist Robert Rauschenberg, to see the exhibit in the garage. Harry Lowe, the assistant director of the Smithsonian Art Museum, told the Washington Post that walking into the garage “was like opening Tut’s tomb.”
The story of Hampton and his artwork finally became public in the December 15, 1964 issue of the Washington Post. Lowe paid Hampton’s outstanding rent and took possession of the art display. In 1970, Hampton’s work was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it has been on display ever since.