America’s most famous living artist took an African immigrant teenager’s sketch and passed it off for his own without the kid’s knowledge – and only sought his blessing to use it in a painting once the work was already finished, and after being accused of theft in legal letters.
Jasper Johns, 91, a renowned painter whose work adorns the hallowed halls of several of America’s most prominent art institutions, spotted 17-year-old Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s sketch during a visit to an orthopedic surgeon.
He did so during a 2019 appointment with Alexander M. Clark Jr., whose practice is based in the town of Sharon, Connecticut – where the aging artist currently lives and works.
The simple sketch, depicting the anatomy of an injured human knee, left the accomplished painter – whose works regularly fetch tens of millions of dollars – captivated, to the point where he decided to feature it in a future piece.
Seventeen-year-old Jéan-Marc Togodgue stands next to Johns’ work that was inspired by a sketch he penned in 2017, that Johns came across in 2019, and used without the teen’s knowledge. The artist notified the youth that he used his work two years later, after the work was already finished
The painting in question, which features a carbon copy of the teen’s 2017 sketch and titled ‘Slice,’ was unveiled this week at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It was inspired by the COVID pandemic
Togodgue, a student and basketball standout who emigrated to US from Cameron, lives with a foster family in the town of Salisbury in Connecticut, is pictured here with his foster mother, Rita Delgado, and father, Jeff Ruskin, next to John’s piece that features his drawing
Togodgue, a student and basketball standout who emigrated to US from Cameron and lives with a foster family in the nearby town of Salisbury, was also a patient of Clark’s, back in 2017. He created the composition that same year after tearing a ligament in his knee – as well as his meniscus – playing a game of pick-up soccer.
‘I drew it is because I wanted to understand my body, like what went wrong inside my knee,’ Togodgue told The Washington Post.
An avid doodler who would regularly sketch cartoons in his school notebooks, Togodgue felt compelled to gift the drawing to Clark as a thank-you, after the doctor successfully treated the teen’s injury.
The surgeon then proudly put the piece on display in his office, where Johns would regularly receive treatment.
During one such visit in 2019, the Georgia-born art giant – who is worth millions of dollars, and was presented with the medal from President Barack Obama in 2011 – found himself drawn to Togodgue’s humble illustration.
Multimillionaire artist Jasper Johns came across 17-year-old Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s sketch in 2019, and decided – without the teen’s knowledge – to feature it in one of works
The artist then captured the sketch’s likeness – whether by duplicating it by hand at Clark’s office or by taking a photograph – and utilized a carbon copy of the work in one of his most recent paintings, one that he finished late last year.
The painting, titled ‘Slice,’ was inspired by the COVID pandemic, and was unveiled this week at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Togodgue’s drawing – with his labeling of ligaments in French and his colorful signature – is a key element of ‘Slice,’ a 5.6-by-4.3-foot painting.
The painting is just one part of an extensive exhibition entitled ‘Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,’ that boasts so many works that its constituents will be featured not only at the Whitney, but at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well.
However, this particular addition to Johns’ oeuvre rightfully raised a series of complex questions about artistic licensing laws – especially now that it has debuted in an exhibition as illustrious as the Whitney.
The piece also promptly sparked a fierce legal dispute between the already accomplished artist and Togodgue, as well as his family.
They took action once they learned of the creative liberties Johns took with the teenager’s innocent sketch – which was quietly settled out of court earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.
Johns, who hails from Georgia and is worth millions of dollars, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former US head of state Barack Obama in 2011
Johns first contacted Togodgue in April, writing the teen a letter detailing the appropriation of his four-year-old drawing into Johns’ now-finished piece, after starting work on ‘Slice’ in 2019 – the same year he first saw Togodgue’s sketch at Clark’s office.
‘I am an artist who lives here in Sharon,’ Johns wrote to Togodgue, revealing that he resides just a few minutes from the young man’s home in Salisbury – while casually omitting the fact that his paintings commonly sell for tens of millions of dollars.
Togodgue, who grew up in the Republic of Cameroon in Central Africa without his own bed or running water, asked his foster mother, Rita Delgado, to read him the letter aloud.
Togodgue traveled to the US just four years ago to live with Delgado and her husband, Jeff Ruskin, a math teach and former basketball coach at his foster son’s high school.
The teen’s first language is French – and while he can speak English fairly well, the note’s importance prompted him to enlist his caregiver as a de facto interpreter.
After introducing himself, Johns told Togodgue about a decision he had made that would forever link the art legend with the young student and basketball standout.
‘I would like you to be pleased with the idea and I hope that you will visit my studio to see what I have made,’ Johns wrote.
Eventually, on May 25, Togodgue, Delgado and Ruskin made their way to the artist’s 170-acre estate.
There the family was greeted by Johns; his assistant, Maureen Pskowski, and Conley Rollins, a former Goldman Sachs asset manager who serves as an unofficial representative of the artist.
Johns penned a letter to Togodgue in April to tell him he was featuring his sketch in one of his works, more than two years after he came across the teenager’s piece
At Johns’ home, Togodgue got to lay eyes on ‘Slice,’ which featured a carbon copy of his drawing, which appeared to be taped to the canvas.
However, the ‘tape’ presented in the piece was actually paint.
Johns had reproduced Togodgue’s sketch how it originally appeared in Clark’s office to a T – right down to the teen’s signature, which was featured prominently in the original work.
Togodgue stood next to the work inspired by his own, and smiled while Ruskin snapped a photo.
In an exclusive interview with Dailymail.com, Togodgue’s parents gushed about how excited they are for the teen’s work to be featured in such a prominent piece.
‘It couldn’t of happened to a better kid,’ Ruskin said.
The math teacher also marveled at the sheer improbability of a kid from Central Africa crossing paths with an illustrious painter such as Johns.
‘Parallel lines aren’t supposed to cross, but they did,’ he beamed, proud of his adopted son’s newfound connection to an old master such as Johns.
Delgado also marveled at the bizarre occurrence, citing the craziness of ‘such a confluence of events.’
Both seemed in incredibly high spirits, and incredibly proud of their foster son for such an accomplishment.
‘You know, I didn’t really know Jasper Johns until I started looking him up on my computer,’ Togodgue says in a recent interview at home.
‘This guy is as big as it gets. And I was just kind of in awe of the whole thing. Like, wow, this is really happening.’
Johns declined requests for an interview, but in a statement emailed to The Post last week, he detailed why he decided to invite Togodgue to his studio once the work was finished.
‘It was important to me that Jéan-Marc see and be happy with the work I made,’ he wrote. ‘I enjoyed meeting him when he came to see the picture in my studio and I was pleased that he liked the work.’
Johns admitted in the letter that he ‘thought that the image might be useful’ upon seeing it in his orthopedist’s office in 2019, and promptly decided to copy it for what would become a new painting.
‘I should have asked you then if you would mind my using it,’ Johns acknowledged in the letter, ‘but I was not certain that my idea would ever materialize.’
However, when Ken Lauber, Ruskin’s old colleague at the Salisbury School, heard of the remarkable convergence of his young foster son and one of the most preeminent painters of our time.
He was alerted to what had happened upon running into Ruskin and Delgado at a coffee shop, then responded by asking whether they had considered that the sketch was Togodgue’s intellectual property.
Ruskin proceeded to show Johns’ letter to Brendan O’Connell, a parent of one of Togodgue’s classmates at the Connecticut all-boys high school.
Coincidentally, O’Connell is also an artist, who has been featured in the New Yorker.
O’Connell already knew Togodgue’s history, as a youth in Africa coming from a poor family.
‘This isn’t like him doing the Savarin coffee cup or doing some pop appropriation like I do,’ O’Connell told The Post, referring to Johns’ 1960 painted sculpture that’s a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.’
‘This is somebody’s work that he directly copied,’ he asserted.
‘To say that you shouldn’t have done something and then to ask somebody to be pleased with something you shouldn’t have done?’
O’Connell was so bothered that he shared the letter with his friend David Moos, a former curator of the Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a decorated art adviser.
‘I should like you to be pleased?’ Moos told the Post in a recent phone interview, speaking of Johns’ letter.
‘This is so crafty, so well written in a way that seeks to force a particular resolution. It rubbed us the wrong way.’
Moos and O’Connell were adamant that Johns was taking advantage of the youth, using a combination of influence and appropriation to effectively force him to sign over his work without fully realizing it.
They found it particularly offensive that a white artist from the segregated South would be making millions off the work of an African teenager – especially given the recent advent of Black Lives Matter and other relevant social justice movements.
In July, O’Connell sent Johns a scathing letter.
In the note, he accused the artist of theft and proposed that the artist pay to create a foundation to assist Togodgue and other artists and athletes from his native country of Cameroon.
‘Forgive me if you have considered these points and were already planning on doing something significant for Jean-Marc,’ O’Connell wrote.
‘But the optics of the wealthiest and most respected Titan in the art world taking a personal drawing of an African ingenue… well, surely you have turned on the news or read a paper in the last three years.’
Johns did not respond to O’Connell.
But this week, Rollins, a friend of Johns, revealed an interesting development in an email to the Post.
In April, prior to sending the letter to Togodgue, Rollins says that Johns talked to him about wanting to help pay for the teenager’s education.
During their May visit, Johns learned that Togodgue was looking to earn a basketball scholarship.
So, Johns told Rollins it might be more realistic and beneficial to offer Togodgue one of the drawings he made in preparing ‘Slice.’
But nobody mentioned this prospective offer to the youth or his hosts before O’Connell wrote to Johns.
And when Rollins visited Togodgue and his foster family in July, with O’Connell’s letter in tow, they were not able to settle the issue amicably.
Lawyers were then brought into the equation.
‘In retrospect, I wish I had reached out to Jéan-Marc and his family right after their studio visit to let them know that I knew Jasper wanted to do something for Jéan-Marc’ Rollins stated in the email, ‘but that he was hoping to first get a chance to know more about Jéan-Marc and his interest.’
Growing up in Cameroon, Togodgue was convinced that sports could be his way to garner an education in the US.
His older brother, Samuel Dingba, had already come to play basketball for Ruskin in 2010, and also lived with the family as Ruskin’s and Delgado’s adopted son.
Dingba was able to get a scholarship to the University of Vermont after finishing high school, where his brother currently attends, and now works with immigrants at a nonprofit group in Burlington.
‘Coach Ruskin changed my life,’ says Dingba, 27. ‘There are jobs in Cameroon but they are not paying jobs. Some people have a master’s [degree] and they’ll be taxi drivers. So, coming to America – oh, man, you would never imagine.’
Ruskin, who retired from coaching in 2015, says that Togodgue will too likely earn a scholarship, to a Division III school.
At 6 foot 5, the teen averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds a game last year playing power forward for Salisbury High School.
‘My job is to get these kids educated,’ Ruskin says. ‘I have told basketball players since 1972, ‘Let basketball be the rich daddy you don’t have. Let basketball pay for your college.’ ‘
Ruskin and Delgado were just starting to accept the premise that Johns could – and perhaps should – be doing more for Togodgue considering his situation and what his son had given him – at first without his consent – when Rollins showed up at their home.
‘If we were people of the means of Jasper Johns, what would we do?’ Delgado told The Post. ‘We would do something different.’
But the tone of O’Connell’s letter made them uncomfortable.
‘It was too aggressive,’ Delgado admitted.
Johns proceeded to stay out of the controversy as it gained momentum.
He did not visit the family after receiving O’Connell’s letter.
But even without the controversy relating to Togodgue’s drawing, and like so manyof Johns’ works – such as his famous prints of the American flag painted in the 1950s – ‘Slice’ is, if nothing else, quite the conversation piece – and Togodgue’s sketch is not the only outside element Johns utilized in its creation.
The painting also includes a 1986 map of the galaxies penned by astrophysicist Margaret Geller.
She, however, sent Johns the map unsolicited in 2018.
Geller’s feelings aside, multiple art experts say there are a multitude of issues that come with Johns’ use of Togodgue’s sketch.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, an expert on intellectual property who directs the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, told the Post that Togodgue’s drawing is his intellectual property, and therefore copyrightable material.
‘What’s copyrightable about this drawing is that it has specific design choices,’ he asserted to the paper.
‘A color scheme. The letters that make up Jéan-Marc. Those are design choices that an artist made even if he didn’t think of himself as an artist at that moment. Had it been just an X-ray or an MRI, that’s not protectable.’
Vaidhyanathan also brought up the fact that Johns waited more than two years after initially seeing the sketch to send the teen the letter.
‘I don’t know what goes through an artist’s head during these creative moments, but Johns has been in the business a long time,’ Vaidhyanathan said.
Nonetheless, Johns’ extensive exhibit opened Wednesday in both New York and Philadelphia – with ‘Slice’ being prominently placed in New York.
Johns declined several requests for interviews to discuss the painting.
Johns and Rollins did, however, respond to the Post by email through Chris Giglio, a spokesman for the artist.
Rollins did not address O’Connell specifically, but did speak on accusations that Johns took advantage of a teen with decidedly less influence in the art sphere – especially when confronted by a man of his social stature.
According to Rollins, Johns did not know Togodgue was the author of the piece pinned up in Clark’s office until after he finished the painting, and upon its completion, he explicitly had Rollins ask the surgeon to help him contact the sketch’s creator.
Togodgue’s name will featured on the wall label next to the painting that was inspired by his 2017 sketch. ‘I am honored to have my work included in Mr. Johns’s painting and can’t wait to see the work at the Whitney,’ the teen told The Washington Post
In August, lawyers for both Johns and Togodgue reached a licensing agreement out of court.
Both sides assert that the agreement is private – but both parties also assert that they are happy with it.
‘Slice’ will be sold by the Matthew Marks Gallery, with all of the proceeds going to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Johns’ nonprofit.
At the Whitney, Togodgue’s name will featured on the wall label next to the painting that was inspired by his 2017 sketch.
The in part: ‘Johns silkscreened an anatomical diagram of a knee, which he originally saw in his orthopedist’s office, drawn and signed by a high school student named Jéan Marc Togodgue.’
‘I am honored to have my work included in Mr. Johns’s painting and can’t wait to see the work at the Whitney,’ Togodgue wrote in an email to the Post last week.
There has been some talk in the Ruskin-Delgado household about whether to ask Clark to return the knee sketch, but Togodgue will not consider it. (Art experts say Clark owns the physical drawing, though Togodgue retains the copyright.)
‘No,’ he says. ‘It was a gift.’