Thursday, January 6, 2011

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.