Cracking the Code of James Hampton's Private Language

For years, scholars have been searching for meaning in the artist's preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Perhaps the real purpose of the shrine lies not in his cryptic notes, but in our own sense of astonishment.
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(Photo: nostri-imago/Flickr)

(Photo: nostri-imago/Flickr)

After the sun went down and the streetlights woke up, God visited James Hampton. Not just once, but often. Moses appeared to him in 1931, the Virgin Mary in 1946, and then Adam on the day of Truman’s inauguration in 1949. These holy visitations came for years in the late hours of the night, when Hampton had finished his shift at the General Services Administration.

Born in 1909 in the Midlands of South Carolina, Hampton served in the Pacific during the Second World War, and then worked as a janitor in the nation’s capital until he died. Most nights, instead of going home to his room at a boarding house, Hampton went to a brick garage that he rented for 50 dollars a month. It was there, in that unheated space about a mile from the White House, that the self-proclaimed “Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity” prepared for the Second Coming of Christ.

Harry Lowe, then assistant director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told the Washington Post that walking into the garage "was like opening Tut’s tomb."

It took Michelangelo only four years to paint the Sistine Chapel, but Hampton spent more than 14 building what he would eventually call “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.” The ebullient, elaborate sculpture is made from aluminum foil and light bulbs, cardboard boxes and coffee cans, jelly jars and wood scraps. Hampton scavenged some materials from the trash bins of the G.S.A. and salvaged others from around the city, hauling discarded furniture in a child’s wagon and collecting foil anywhere he could, including the wine bottles and cigarette packs of strangers.

When the night was as deep as a well, Hampton would go to the garage to glue, staple, tape, and tack his treasures together. A few 500-watt bulbs hung from the ceiling, bringing light to the darkness of his workspace, and, piece-by-piece, the 180 objects of Hampton’s masterpiece came to occupy almost 300 square feet. The center throne itself is seven-feet tall, its foundation an old armchair with a red cushion. Flanking it are dozens of ambos and altars, crowns, lecterns, tablets, and winged pulpits—like Isaiah’s vision of the Lord enthroned, even the wings have wings.

AFTER HAMPTON'S DEATH FROM stomach cancer in November of 1964, his landlord, a pawnbroker named Meyer Wertlieb, discovered the sculpture and some written manuscripts while clearing out the garage. On one wall was a blackboard with chalked plans and sketches; on another wall, a bulletin board with a verse from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Hampton’s sister came up from South Carolina to settle his estate, but expressed no interest in the “Throne,” so Wertlieb contacted local newspapers. He also tried renting out the space to a new tenant.

A sculptor named Ed Kelly answered Wertlieb’s advertisement and, astounded by what he saw in the garage, contacted other artists and collectors. Because this was during the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Biennial, the likes of Leo Castelli and Robert Rauschenberg came to see the sculpture in situ. Harry Lowe, then assistant director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told the Washington Post that walking into the garage “was like opening Tut’s tomb.”

Hampton’s work exists in that ambiguous category of outsider art, a comfortable term for collectors and curators, but an uncomfortable one for many who believe these artists are either deranged or devout.

It was Lowe who paid Hampton’s outstanding rent, taking possession of the “Throne” for the Smithsonian, where it has been on display ever since except for a few weeks in 2012 when it was removed for cleaning. The “Throne” sits in an artificial apse in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a recessed niche meant to look like something you’d find in a church. There’s a bench that stands like a pew in front of it, inviting visitors to sit and stare, but it’s antiseptic, like listening to a bell without its clapper, partly, of course, because James Hampton never thought of himself as an artist.

“The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” wasn’t a work of symbolism, but a literal readying for the Second Coming. Hampton’s work exists in that ambiguous category of outsider art, a comfortable term for collectors and curators, but an uncomfortable one for many who believe these artists are either deranged or devout. What little we know about Hampton’s sense of vocation is known only through his writings, most of which are written in a private language.

A BOUND NOTEBOOK AND a clipboard of lined, loose-leaf paper were found in the garage and while there are some recognizably English words, the pages are mostly filled with symbols that swirl like pinwheels, numerals that hang like musical notes, triangles and dots, arrows and circles. The assumption is that Hampton’s language reads like English—from top to bottom, moving from left to right—but cryptanalysts have been unable to translate it.

Like the Rohonc Codex and the Voynich Manuscript, Hamptonese has been studied but never solved. One 2005 study published by Mark Stamp, a professor of computer science at San Jose State University, tried using Markov models to analyze Hampton’s private language. Stamp and one of his undergraduate students, Ethan Le, spent hours transcribing Hampton’s writings into a computer-friendly form. They identified 42 distinct symbols from more than 29,000 characters, and then ran entropy calculations on their transcription. Hampton’s language had entropy levels “comparable” to that of English, meaning its non-randomness suggested it is not nonsense speech (though not necessarily a language either).

One of the most interesting conclusions that Stamp offers is the "very real possibility that in spite of its language-like appearance, Hamptonese is simply the written equivalent of 'speaking in tongues.'"

After that, Stamp used a common tool in statistical modeling on Hampton’s writing. Hidden Markov models were created in the 1960s by the Defense Department, and since they were declassified in the '70s, they have been used for medical imaging, genomic analysis, and language-related problems like speech recognition. These algorithms are used to detect patterns in spoken and written speech, so the letters and phonetics of English can be easily compared to those of Hampotonese. The first hidden Markov model analysis ruled out a simple substitution cipher whereby each symbol of Hamptonese would correspond to a letter of the English alphabet, but the second was less conclusive.

One of the most interesting conclusions that Stamp offers in his 2005 paper is the “very real possibility that in spite of its language-like appearance, Hamptonese is simply the written equivalent of ‘speaking in tongues.’” That would mean that while Hampton’s writing is consistent with a genuine language, it still might never be translated. All those pages, all those revelations and visions: It’s possible that none of them will ever be decoded.

NOT EVERYTHING HAMPTON WROTE, though, is in Hamptonese. Above the “Throne,” in shiny silver, are the words “FEAR NOT.” That phrase, spoken first by God to Abraham, but then repeated often by Christ in the New Testament, is the core of Hampton’s work. To the left of those words are the prophets and references to the Hebrew Bible; to the right, the apostles and the New Testament. That arrangement was settled years ago after Hampton’s “Throne” attracted the attention of evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould.

In his book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (1987), Gould explains how Hampton’s work inspired his own sense of the repetition and reinvention of history. Gould saw Hampton’s “Throne” while on a coffee break at a conference, but noticed an irregularity. He asked a curator why the Old Testament appeared on the right and the New Testament on the left, only to learn that it had been installed incorrectly.

The two sides were reversed, and Hampton’s work was righted by the time a writer named Denis Johnson saw it. Johnson drove from Key West to South Carolina, and then from Hampton’s hometown to Washington to see the “Throne” in the Smithsonian. He confesses in his poem about the pilgrimage:

I’m glad The Throne exists:

My days are better for it, and I feel

Something that makes me know my life is real

To think he died unknown and without a friend,

But this feeling isn’t sorrow. I was his friend

As I looked at and was looked at by the rushing-together parts

Of the vision of someone who was probably insane

The assumption that Hampton was insane, based either on the radical simplicity of his materials or the continued secrecy of his language, might be the most comfortable way of explaining his life and work, but it is also the most callow. Perhaps we can live with the possibility that a man worked for years to astonish the rest of us, not because he was crazed, but because he was truly inspired.

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