This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” by Helen Ingalls
Helen Ingalls: I want to start this talk with a little bit of a personal note. In about 1971-72, my mother, Mikee Ingalls dragged a very disaffected teenager to the Montgomery Alabama Museum of Art telling me that there was something I really had to see and I said, “Oh, yeah, I don’t want to go. I’m not going.” She persisted and we went and it was James Hampton’s Throne. In a curious quirk of life and fate, when I began working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1988, this came under my care as an object conservator. Who knew? This afternoon, I’m going to talk to you about the James Hampton Throne. I’ll be discussing the discovery of the Throne, a little bit about James Hampton’s biography, the materials that the Throne is made of, aluminum foil manufacture, the Throne conditions and deterioration, conservation and maintenance and a conclusion.
In 1964, James Hampton, a reclusive worker at the General Services Administration in Washington, died of stomach cancer. His rented garage lay unopened until the landlord decided to rent it out and opened it to find a trove of glittering silvery objects. Reluctant to dispose of the strange collection, the landlord contacted museums, local newspapers and even the New York Times.
Eventually, the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, agreed to pay the past due rental fees for the garage and acquired in 1970 the indescribably horde later known to the world as the Throne of the Third Heaven Nations’ Millennium General Assembly or simply the Hampton Throne. The silvery gleam was caused, of course, by reflections from the aluminum foil covering almost every surface. It’s like had never been seen.
Acting museum director, Harry Lowe, later said they didn’t know what it was or what to call it but they knew it was something special. Indeed, it was an ambitious scheme to create an ecclesiastical environment to serve as a staging for the second coming of Christ as foretold in the Revelations book of The Bible. Here are some examples of Hampton’s work, a schematic plan at the upper left of the slide shows the location of the items.
Here you have what we generally refer to as just the small items. There are a lot of plaques perhaps 15 or 20 plaques. There are about 10 crowns. The medium-sized objects, so called, a star, an altar table plaque holder so you can have a plaque of the day. Those come in and out are held by something that looks suspiciously like a Kleenex box. Then there are the larger elements. I was really struck during today’s lectures about the frequency of winged figures and angels. Hampton used a lot of that type of imagery in his work as you’ll see. Here, you have a butterfly stand and a center pulpit. Since it was an ecclesiastical space, obviously there has to be somewhere for the minister to stand and deliver the sermon. This was the big central pulpit.
Extensive research was conducted was conducted on the Throne by Lynda Hartigan, who worked as an intern, a registrar and a curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and we’re indebted to her for the background information that she unearthed and provided on Hampton. The artist’s early life by all accounts was unremarkable. He was born in Elloree, South Carolina in 1909. He moved to Washington, DC in 1931 at the age of 22. I think that must’ve been a very disrupted change for a country boy and indeed in 1931, he had his first vision. He had a series of visions and he recorded them on cardboard tags such as the one you see on the right side of the screen. This one hung from one of the Throne’s large stands named for the prophet Moses.
After his arrival in Washington, he did a series of menial jobs including being a short order cook at a local eatery, but he was inducted into an army air squadron during World War II and he had a chance to travel quite a bit. He went to Texas, Seattle, Saipan, Honolulu and Guam. I’ve often wondered if those sort of Asiatic sites allowed him to see some of the glittery works of art made at particularly in places like Guam and Hong Kong. It must’ve been quite exotic for him.
His only dated sculpture and perhaps the first of the entire ensemble is labelled ‘Made on Guam’ April 1945 and it’s about two feet by one foot maybe. He was honorably discharged from the army in 1945, returned to DC after the war and found work as a night janitor at the General Services Administration. In 1950, he rented a garage in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington and created his life’s work there from 1950 to 1964.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that after his late shift, the artist combed the street for discarded materials on the way to his garage studio. There, he would continue working into the night on his project. According to those who knew him, he spoke of one day setting up a storefront ministry, no doubt incorporating his hand-made objects into a spiritual environment to serve God.
Here’s a list of the artist’s basic construction materials. He would buy furniture at a used furniture store on 14th Street in Washington. Sometimes he would, for example, buy a round table and cut it in half and then he would have two semicircular tables. He would buy dressers and pull the drawers out, invert them and in that way get more height for low pieces. Iron casters, he probably got from office chairs at the GSA. Poster board, insulation board, cellulose acetate overlay film, desk blotter paper, Kraft construction paper, nails, brads, tacks, pins.
These are very humble materials and he probably got just about all of them free. Here’s an example of a re-purposed chair that served as the Throne. It’s actually hard to see in the pictures of the overall Throne because there’s so many pieces around it, but indeed this is normally shown at the back between the two tall butterfly stands. This is being worked on, treated by two pre-program volunteers. Not quite sure where he got that cushion. I guess it’s a couch cushion or something.
In addition to the basic materials that I just talked about, he added a lot of embellishments, things like inks and paints, dye-based marker, pen, pencil, light bulbs covered with foil, glass jars and vases covered with foil, electrical conduit covered with foil for used as rounded beading on the plain furniture to dress it up. Did I say foil? Aluminum foil. This is a picture of the conduit, electrical conduit there. Even a little bit of twine there.
He was obviously trying to dress up the straight edge and so he probably first used a twine and then that didn’t give it the roundness that he wanted so he used the conduit. This is the kind of jar that I believe jams and jellies were sold in and you could keep the jar. That’s a Blue Bird one and there’s some other bird featured on those jars. The sources of Hampton’s decorative foils varied widely. Some came into use pristine, some following use as display materials in liquor stores or floral shops or packaging for cigarettes or food stuffs. Whether Hampton’s compulsion for foils would have caused him to select food wrappings from the GSA office trash where he worked is conceivable but not documented. But if so, acidic food stuffs or fatty residues could’ve made their way into the works causing damage later on.
According to Alcoa Aluminum Company publication from 1953, “In general, food products are not corrosive to aluminum, but many hygroscopic products packaged in thin foil may cause some reaction particularly if the product contains salt or salt and some mild organic acid in the case of cheese or mayonnaise. The most important and dependable sources of Hampton’s raw material however were rolls of household aluminum foil.”
Here you see a tab. This usage is signaled by tell tale tabs remaining at the end of rolls advising the buyer that they were only six feet now, six feet left, order now Reynolds Wrap. These warnings were incorporated by the artist into the foil wrappings and remained unseen at the back of some of the Throne elements. I sometimes picture him- I’m sure he had different working phases, but I sometimes picturing him just working feverishly and just pulling out the foil rolls and not having time to even tear off the tab before he started a new one. Clean and shiny, the household foil provided a reliable raw material that the artist could spontaneously model and sculpt in pursuit of his artistic vision.
Hampton’s use of aluminum foil coincided with its increasing availability and affordability and packaging trends which favored the use of aluminum. Food packaging in the early 20th century shifted away from bulk to individual packaging. There was a demand for better sanitation, better display, storage and inventory of consumer goods, better protection of product quality, positive identification of packaged foods and there was pure food and drug legislation.
The first industries to really take advantage of the use of aluminum foil for packaging were the tobacco fancy box and greeting card industries and the confectionery industry using plain and laminated foil for chewing gum and other confections. In 1911, the Swiss company, Tobler, began packaging its chocolates in foil and then Life Savers followed suit in the US in 1913. In 1947- I was surprised by this late date, Reynolds Wrap alloy number 79 became available to consumers, just in ’47. Hampton started work three years later in 1950 and in 1980, the alloy was changed to number 8111. This is less important to us, but apparently to connoisseurs of aluminum, this is very important. I’m just going to very quickly run you through the production of aluminum just because it’s so critical to perception of this group of artifacts.
Foil production begins with billets or ingots of bulk aluminum metal. They’re rolled and re-rolled to a thin gauge on cold rolls using lubrication. Foil is generally defined by US manufacturers or having thickness of between 6 mils and .25 mils or thousandths of an inch. Kitchen foil today is usually less than than 1 mil thick. The rolled foil intended for industrial applications is work hardened, but the household products is heated to anneal it prior to final inspection.
This produces foil in the full soft condition able to dead fold and that means stay where it’s put without springing back or cracking. This annealing also burns off any oil lubricants used in the rolling process. The purity of most packaging foil is about 99.35 to 99.55 percent aluminum with minute parts of other elements such as silicon and iron to strengthen and harden the aluminum.
This very high level of purity suggests that aluminum foil deterioration is due primarily not to the foil itself but to the laminates, adhesives and coatings used in the production of varied consumer products as well as the conditions of its usage. Paper laminates are used in the industry to reinforce thin foils allowing the use of less metal thereby reducing costs while maintaining moisture and permeability imparted by even the thinnest metal films. The foil may be laminated to a carrier or backing sheet with all kinds of adhesives. The actual paper and foil laminating adhesives for Hampton’s foils are unknown, but one paper backing did test positive for polyvinyl acetate resin, possibly originally intended for heat sealing applications.
Foils used in the fabrication of the Hampton Throne appear to be of four general types: out of the box Reynolds household foil used and new, textured foils which were mainly silver colored as seen in the image on the right, silver foil and paper laminates and paper laminated foils with gold toned coatings. The bulk of the Throne has a silver coloration, but there are some really strategically placed gold-toned foils that really enhanced the depth and the sense of richness of the entire ensemble. You can see the textured roll there. I can’t help but think that looks a lot like the Washington Monument, that textured piece there. Thin foils whose carrier or laminate deteriorates have little physical supports. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this from trying to tear into some Christmas candy and become vulnerable to mechanical wear, tearing and loss such as that seen in frequently handled areas of the Throne.
See, that’s the paper backing and the foil’s been torn away or has come away. Coatings are applied to plain or laminated foil products to provide additional gloss to the surface or as in Hampton’s gold foils to alter the color of the aluminum metal for decorative purposes. Analysis of gold foil samples from the Throne reveal that cellulose nitrate was the toned coating used in these three combined spectra of cellulose nitrate. The Throne foil sample’s in red, a degraded known sample of cellulose nitrate is in purple. Those lines are pretty close. An undegraded but still nitrocellulose standard is seen in the aqua colored spectrum. It’s the same material, but it’s not old. The cause of deterioration, Hampton’s artistic methods didn’t utilize traditional carpentry techniques. In most cases, his structural attachments were made with insubstantial items such as thick cardboard straps, tinned iron tabs from adhesive tape rolls or canned goods and thin iron brads, which sometimes did not penetrate all the intended layers.
An early inventory of the Throne component materials in American Arts Conservation files from July 1974 listed no screws used by the artist to aid in structural stability. A few screws were added by museum staff in 1974 to secure the taller pieces to withstand travel and loan. The structural material Hampton most relied upon however is hide glue found on four detached Throne samples and identified by FTIR analysis by comparison with the spectrum of a known sample of degraded hide glue. He may have discovered the utility of this material in discussion with the used furniture purveyors he’s known to have frequented in the used furniture district. This material would’ve been inexpensive and readily available in bulk to be mixed up in individual batches as needed. The strength of this adhesive served Hampton well to some degree securing layered papers and foils to wooden substrates and to other decorative layers.
However, its contractile forces also worked to the artist’s disadvantage because glue applied to paper backed foils cause the shiny surfaces to shrivel and distort, resulting in a withered appearance. Balls with kerfed foil tabs are torn away here. Hampton’s method for creating- I know this is a complicated image and it’s probably a little hard for you to decipher, but it’s basically a cross piece there covered with a top layer of silver foil. Hampton would was up the foil balls and smash them down into his thumb to create a hemisphere and he would put them on surfaces. He would cover that rounded surface with gold foil. As you know, it’s hard to get a flat sheet to conform to a rounded sheet. He would kerf the edges and glue them down. He must’ve used hide glue to stick them down and they just shriveled up and became very brittle and tore off. This is just one example of how the use of hide glue caused some loss. This tendency to shrinkage would have been exacerbated by the extremes of temperature and humidity endemic to the artist’s workspace. In addition, aluminum’s corrosion resistant in the presence of neutral glues, but acid or alkaline glues can cause some pitting. Moreover, a sticky black material referred to by an early conservator as tar, as well as several brown-toned house paints caused distortion and staining of some paper elements and attracted dirt.
This is a tarry substance. You see a lot of staining on the paper. Here’s some house paint with some sand embedded in it. It was just, in general, kind of difficult material to work with. These experimental materials would sometimes necessitate redoing by covering with foil or with additional foil covered cardboard layers. This is particularly evident in some of the small early plaques.
Here’s one of the plaques. Again, we have this tarry substance here around the border. This is an archival photo. It’s a little hard to see the detail, but these little aluminum tabs have been degraded either by hide glue or by the tar that they sit in. Hampton said, “No problem.” He just super imposed another layer. You can actually probably see a little residual tab forms there that were covered over when he just made an addition.
It’s suspected that these materials were used early on in the artist’s process and abandoned. Hampton made continual adjustments to find workable methods and materials like all of the artists that we’ve been discussing today. He made changes based on years long experience with the inherent vice of his chosen materials. I don’t need to tell anybody in this room that the storage environment of these large installations is never very good.
The unheated garage Hampton rented at 7th Street in Washington between M and N Street shown in this picture featuring the artist was partially furnished, lit with raw light bulbs. I think you can see there and accessed by large carriage house double doors. Hampton died in 1964 and the National Collection of Fine Arts or SAM acquired the entire work in 1970. Components were housed for an extended time in the garage during fabrication and after the artist’s death and they would’ve encountered many of the agents of deterioration: unstable climate including wide extremes of temperature and relative humidity and light UV and visible.
If as seems likely that uninhabited building envelope was not sealed, street dust, insects, rodents and other agents of deterioration could have negatively impacted the materials of the Throne. No insect damage has been observed on the Throne elements surprisingly, but some paper components show significant water staining and tide lines. Use of cheap construction papers colored with fugitive dyes led to fading early on of colored elements of many Throne components. In fact, when the Throne was first acquired, there was some delamination of some of the layered winged figures. Some of the staff people noticed that underneath some of the layers of winged figures, there were these bright colors, there were roses and purples and greens and already at that time, these materials, not having been chosen for their durability, had faded. It was originally, as the artist conceived it, a much more colorful ensemble.
After discovery of the Throne’s existence following Hampton’s death, human factors such as handling, packing, storage, travel and display would intervene to stress the fragile constructions further. The ensemble was first displayed publicly in 1971 in the National Collection of Fine Arts exhibition “Hidden Aspects”. After extensive structural repairs, a portion of the Throne complex, roughly 50 of 180 components, traveled packaged in cardboard boxes and crates to 8 venues. I won’t list them, but they include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, The Whitney, Fine Arts in Boston, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Parts have been loaned since 1982 to at least 10 museums. Major complex was last loaned to Colonial Williamsburg in 2000. It’s been around the block a few times. The Throne has moved at least four times within the museum. All that handling and shuttling around cannot have benefited these very fragile constructions.
The deterioration of the foil, although in general the silver colored household foils survived well, the artist appears to have been discontented with dust and dirt embedded in the interstices because he took steps to stop the alteration of the shiny surfaces by covering some with plastic overlay film and some with new household foil right out of the box. In time, as he covered over the dulled surfaces, there were leaf details lost their crispness and complexity. Other reasons for covering the existing foils may have been corrosion stimulated by tar and paints as I’ve already referred to. Structural weaknesses caused by repeated folding and manipulation during construction could render the foils vulnerable to corrosion and acidic food residues could have attacked weak areas of the foil. We did see some filiform corrosion- This is a treat for all you conservators out there. You can’t ever have enough pictures of filiform corrosion- Appearing like mole tunnels on the surface of the metal was observed on a few silver-colored samples.
Many of the paper laminated sheets have not held up well either, some due to mechanical stresses associated with handling while moving the rusty wheel components. The poor environment would have played an important role in furthering delamination, weakening the paper supports of the thin foils and furthering their tendency to tear with pressure. Foil with gold toned coatings perhaps fared the worst because of sensitivity of the cellulose nitrate coatings to dust, light and debrasion. That’s a deteriorated gold-toned coating. Furthermore, cellulose nitrate’s listed by the Aluminum Association as one of the materials slightly corrosive to aluminum in certain solvents. Maintenance and treatment of the Throne over the decade since its acquisition in 1970 has been challenging due to the sheer scale of the installation, the nearly constant display of the iconic ensemble and difficult access due to the close packing of the elements went on display.
Traveling exhibitions have involved multiple campaigns of intensive handling and light exposure. Beginning in 1988 with the hiring of a full time objects conservator at the American Art Museum regular maintenance was begun with a program of dusting, in depth cleaning and repair campaigns occurred periodically in 1992, 2002 and 2012. Various dust preventive concepts have been considered over time. Dust is a really big problem with this.
One of the concepts for preventing dust was constructing a Plexiglass barrier to protect the Throne from dust and visitor interaction, which was a practice observed in historic rooms during the 1970s and 80s. Prior to the reopening of the renovated POB, renamed the Donna Williams Center, a positive pressure system was conceived to prevent dust from entering the Throne enclosure and depositing on the foil elements, but financing did not materialize for this engineered solution. Display in a carpeted gallery exacerbates the common problem of dust influx into the gallery exhibition spaces. In order to reduce light-induced deterioration, advances in museum lighting have also been considered and implemented. One of the advances that was considered was a motion detector calibrated to respond to human presence in the Throne gallery, but a dark gallery waiting to be motion activated was deemed uninviting to visitors and was not implemented. LED lighting, Laser Emitting Diode lighting, is being utilized to augment incandescent light sources in an effort to save energy and reduce the need for access to bulbs in areas with difficult access.
In conclusion, in spite of poor quality materials, experimental methods, non-standard joinery, constant revision by the artist, poor storage, frequent loans and long term display, the Throne has endured from its inception in a garage workshop in 1950 until the present. The artist was a poor man and could only use what he could scavenge or purchase second hand with the exception of one material. Abundantly available, high quality, yet inexpensive household aluminum foil, whose inherent stability under deleterious conditions is perhaps the element most responsible for preserving the spiritual and artistic vision of James Hampton. I encourage you to visit the Throne in Washington DC, currently on view in the American Art Museum First Floor Folk Art Galleries and I’d like to thank the following people for their help with this paper. Thank you for your attention.
The Hampton Throne, produced between 1950 and 1964, was the life’s work of self-taught artist James Hampton. The 80-piece installation appears to be made of aluminum foil, though in fact it forms only the skin covering wooden and cardboard structural elements, bought second-hand or found on the streets of Washington DC. The plain, colored, and textured foils derive from store-bought rolls of kitchen foil but also from liquor store displays, candy wrappers and cigarette packs. They were secured in place by means of crimping, pressing, gluing and nailing. The components were adorned with paint, glue, colored papers, and toned varnish coatings. Various forms of corrosion are present on the foil, and some of the paints and glues have caused severe deterioration.
Dust has been a constant in the environment of the Throne, and was problematic enough for the artist that many of the elements were covered over again during his lifetime to refresh dust-embedded parts of the heavenly showpiece. The installation was created in an unheated garage often opened to a dusty alleyway to provide light and air to the claustrophobic space. Extremes of temperature and humidity were endemic to the artist’s workspace and surely have contributed to the deterioration of the non-archival components and the thin aluminum films.
Maintenance and treatment of the Throne over the decades since its accession in 1970 has been impeded by difficult access due to the close packing of the elements when on display, the sheer scale of the installation and the nearly constant display of the iconic ensemble. Travelling exhibitions for large portions of the Throne and long-term exposure to light have damaged the colored elements of the Throne and hastened deterioration of adhesives and coatings.
The artist’s use of materials, deterioration, and maintenance strategies will be discussed in this look at the conservation of a unique, powerful, and vision-driven icon of American art.
Helen Ingalls began her training in a private glass and ceramics conservation studio. She acquired her formal training and Advanced Certificate in Conservation at the Cooperstown/Buffalo Graduate Program in Art Conservation. After internships at Colonial Williamsburg and the Walters Art Museum, and a Mellon Fellowship at the National Gallery of Art, she worked for two years at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, on Pre-Columbian archaeological metals and ceramics. Helen has practiced object conservation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery since 1988.
Current projects include preparation of contemporary craft objects for the Renwick Gallery Permanent Collection post-renovation re-installation in 2016, and American Folk Art sculptures for a planned gallery re-installation in 2015. She is a member of the American Institute for Conservation (1981), INCCA-NA, ICOM, and the Washington Conservation Guild (Board member 2010-2014). She served on the Editorial Board for the Guild’s mid-atlantic directory, Conservation Resources for Art and Antiques, and contributed the chapter on Outdoor Sculpture conservation.