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Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes was one of the world’s most important and influential art critics. He wrote an exhibition review of Black Folk Art in America, 1930 - 1980, Finale for the Fantastical: Washington’s Corcoran mounts a fiery, marvellous folk show. Time magazine, March 1, 1982.

In the review Hughes wrote very admiringly about self-taught artist James Hampton’s magnificent work, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, c. 1950-64, 180 pieces in total configuration, gold and silver aluminium foil, kraft paper and plastic over wood furniture, paperboard and glass.

Wrote Hughes “[the exhibition’s] masterpiece… is James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. Hampton (1909-64), a janitor for the General Services Administration in Washington, started his own sect, of which he was the only member. The Throne was his life’s work. It occupied him for 15 years, and it was still unfinished, locked in a rented garage, at his death. It was provoked by visions of Moses, the Virgin Mary and Adam. They inspired him to raise a monument, not to a past event but to a future one - the Second Coming of Christ. [The work’s] centrepiece would be a throne on which God would sit, surrounded by his angels and saints.”

Hughes devoted a significant amount of his review to Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, concluding, somewhat ruefully, that “nothing else in in the show is quite so majestic…”

The work was included in Kobena Mercer’s introduction to Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, (which was also edited by Kobena Mercer). One of four books in a series titled Annotating Art’s Histories, jointly published by The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts and iniva the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, published in 2008. Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly was also reproduced in Richard Powell’s Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. Powell argued that: “James Hampton’s glittering, monumental assemblage was meant to be a liturgical display within his “all black” church in Washington, D.C. But its public unveiling after this reclusive artist’s death in 1964 - and its artistic première a few years later in the Smithsonian Institution - cloaked its devotional and culture-specific purpose.” 

In innumerable instances, Powell’s book, by its nature, could make only passing or fleeting comment about works and artists worthy of more substantial introduction to the general reader. So Powell’s comments on Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly are unqualified and not substantiated. Certainly they are not borne out in the appreciation of the work by Hughes.

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