The complicated story behind Jasper Johns’ argument with a Cameroonian teenager over a drawing of a knee (he has a happy ending)

Prior to the opening of his current double retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jasper Johns had legal problems. The problem was one of his new works, Slice, and his use of a silkscreen print of a drawing of a 17-year-old boy.

Jean-Marc Togodgue, who left the Republic of Cameroon in West Central Africa for the United States four years ago, was shocked when he received a letter from Johns in April. The esteemed painter, perhaps the most important living American artist, admitted that a drawing the teenager gave to their joint orthopedic surgeon, Alexander M. Clark Jr., featured prominently in his painting. Slice (2020).

A talented athlete who hopes to win a basketball scholarship, Togodgue attends Salisbury School, a boys-only academy in Connecticut. He also likes to draw, sketching different characters in his notebooks. When he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus while playing football shortly after arriving in the country in 2017, Togodgue drew a picture of the inner workings of the knee based on an image found on the internet.

He introduced it to Clark, who hung it in his office in Sharon, Connecticut. This is where it caught Johns’ attention.

The now 91-year-old artist “thought the image might be useful” and copied it, he wrote in the letter to Togodgue. “I should have asked you then if you would mind if I used it, but I wasn’t sure my idea would ever materialize.” “

But materialized, in Slice, which also features “Slice of the Universe,” a 1986 star map showing the distribution of nearby galaxies that astrophysicist Margaret Geller sent to Johns in 2018. (The image intrigued Johns due to the way the galactic markers appear to form a stick in the middle of the image.) But as he warned Geller that she was helping inspire a new piece, Togodgue had no idea that his drawing had caught the attention of a famous artist until the job is done.

Margaret Geller sent this “Slice of the Universe” (1986) showing the distribution of nearby galaxies to Jasper Johns, who incorporated it into one of his paintings. V. de Lapparent, MJ Geller and JP Huchra, 1986, Astrophysical Journal Letters, 302, L1 (graphs by MJ Kurtz).

“I would like you to be happy with the idea and I hope you will visit my studio to see what I have done,” Johns continued.

At the artist’s invitation, Togodgue and his foster parents, Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin (who also teach at his school), went to see the painting at Johns’ studio. Togodgue was thrilled and posed for a photo with the piece, which perfectly reproduces his original design.

“I’m not an art critic, but I liked the way Jasper incorporated Jean-Marc’s work,” Ruskin told Artnet News in an email.

But it was not over yet. Artist Brendan O’Connell, the father of Togodgue’s close friend, took issue that a renowned Johns artist copied a child’s work without permission. When he found out what had happened, he sent Johns a heavily worded letter, accusing him of intellectual property theft.

“The richest and most respected Titan in the art world taking the personal drawing of an African ingenuous” was not a good look in the Black Lives Matter era, O’Connell wrote. He suggested Johns create a foundation to support Togodgue and other young Cameroonian athletes and artists.

Détail de Jasper Johns, <em>Slice</em> (2020), featured in "Jasper Johns: Spirit / Mirror" at the Whitney.  Photo by Ben Davis.

Detail of Jasper Johns, Slice (2020), featured in “Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror” at the Whitney. Photo by Ben Davis.

Conley Rollins, who is an informal representative for Johns, said the Washington post this Johns had already discussed what to do for the teenager. But those thoughts – to help pay for Togodgue’s college education, or to prepare him for Slice– had never been transmitted to the adolescent or to his foster family.

It was then that the lawyers entered the scene. What constitutes fair use of copyrighted material in the fine art is a complex question. It is possible that John’s ownership of Togodgue’s intellectual property could be seen as transformative. It is also possible that the artist has infringed the copyright of the young person.

Either way, Johns and Togodgue reached an undisclosed deal for a licensing deal in August.

“I was happy and relieved that this was settled in the end, although Rita and I maintained that it could have been settled sooner and then lawyers and strong letters would not have been necessary,” said Ruskin. “Jean-Marc plans to study art at college. He finds it relaxing and is proud of the pieces he has completed.

Jean-Marc Togodgue et ses parents d'accueil, Rita Delgado et Jeff Ruskin, avec <em>Slice</em> by Jasper Johns at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  Photo courtesy of Jeff Ruskin.

Jean-Marc Togodgue and his foster parents, Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin, with Jasper Johns’s Slice at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Photo courtesy of Jeff Ruskin.

Today, the work is part of Whitney’s presentation of “Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror” and is offered for sale through the artist’s dealer, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. Profits will be donated to Johns’ nonprofit, the Foundation for the Contemporary Arts.

With the legal dispute behind them, Togodgue, Ruskin, and Delgado were able to visit the Whitney and see Slice in the galleries of the museum, where the teenager is credited by name in the wall tag.

“We were a very proud mom and dad,” Delgado told the London Times. “We kept telling people watching the play: ‘Well, if you want to know who did that, over there, it’s Jean-Marc!’ It stimulated wonderful conversations with an assortment and variety of art lovers, art historians and art teachers. It was the perfect afternoon.

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