US artist Jasper Johns copied African teen's sketch of injured knee

Legendary artist Jasper Johns reaches settlement with student, 17, after he used a sketch

  • Multimillionaire artist Johns came across 17-year-old Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s sketch in 2019, and decided – without teen’s knowledge – to use it in one of works
  • The simple sketch, depicting the anatomy of an injured human knee, left the painter – whose works regularly fetch tens of millions of dollars – captivated 
  • Togodgue, a basketball standout who hails from Cameroon and hopes to get a college scholarship, gave the sketch to his orthopedist in 2017 as a gift
  • Johns and Togodgue share the same orthopedist, and the artist saw the work hanging the doctor’s office, and decided to copy it
  • The accomplished painter, whose works sell for up to $110m dollars did not notify the teen that he was using his drawing until two years later
  • A legal battle ensued, and an agreement was reached between lawyers for both Johns and Togodgue out of court 
  • The piece, completed earlier this year and titled ‘Slice,’ was recently unveiled at the Whitney Museum in New York City

Celebrated painter Jasper Johns has reached a settlement with a 17 year-old African student after incorporating a sketch the teen drew into one of his pieces without his knowledge.   

Johns, 91, spotted Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s drawing during a 2019 visit to an orthopedic surgeon called Alexander M Clark Jr in Sharon, Connecticut, close to where both he and the teenager live. 

The sketch by Togodgue – who is being hosted by couple Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin while at school in the US – shows a cross-section of a knee.

He gave it to Dr Clark after being treated by him when he tore a ligament in his knee while playing soccer in 2017, shortly after he moved to the US, with the medic so touched by the gesture that he pinned it to his clinic wall.

That artwork so captivated Johns, whose works sell for up to $110m, that he copied it to include in one of his latest paintings, called Slice, complete with Togodgue’s signature at the bottom right corner. 

In April this year, Johns wrote to Togodgue to tell him what he’d done. The teenager, whose native language is French, asked Delgado to read the letter aloud for him.

Jasper Johns’ new artwork Slice features a reproduction of a drawing by 17 year-old Jéan-Marc Togodgue, which triggered a legal dispute 

Togodgue stands next to Johns’ work at the Whitney in New York. He gave his orthopedic surgeon the original drawing as a gift after being treated for a torn ligament in 2017, with the same image captivating Johns two years later 

It said: ‘I am an artist who lives here in Sharon.’ Johns continued that he thought the image drawn by the teenager ‘might be useful’ then added: ‘I should have asked you then if you would mind my using it.

‘But I was not certain that my idea would ever materialize.’ Johns, whose letter gave no indication as to his superstar status, concluded:  ‘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.’ 

Togodgue had never heard of Johns, and accepted the painter’s offer to come and see the artwork – named Slice – at his studio, situated on his 170 acre estate, in May. 

But trouble flared when word of Togodgue’s inspirational artwork spread to family friend Brendan O’Connell, a successful artist known for painting oil scenes of Walmart store interiors. 

O’Connell – whose son Matthew is best friends with Togodgue – was angered by Johns’ behavior. He was further riled by the knowledge that Togodgue’s father had worked stacking supermarket shelves six days a week in Cameroon to provide for his family, with his two sons sharing a bed. 

Togodgue’s older brother Samuel Dingba came to the US on a basketball scholarship in 2010, inspiring his younger sibling to do the same. Dingba also stayed with Ruskin and Delgado, and now works for a nonprofit.  

O’Connell told The Washington Post: ‘This isn’t like him doing (previous art piece) the Savarin coffee cup or doing some pop appropriation like I do. This is somebody’s work that he directly copied.

‘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 then contacted his art adviser David Moos, who was equally outraged by Johns’ behavior.

Referring to the letter Johns’ wrote to the teenager, he said: ‘”I should like you to be pleased?”

‘This is so crafty, so well written in a way that seeks to force a particular resolution. It rubbed us the wrong way.’

O’Connell wrote Johns a scathing letter in July, and highlighted that the ‘optics’ of a wealthy white artist ‘taking the personal drawing of an African ingenue’ did not look good in the era of Black Lives Matter, which has brought increased awareness of casual racism. 

Johns’ didn’t respond, but his unofficial representative Conley Rollins got in touch with The Washington Post earlier this week when it began investigating the story. 

Rollins claimed that Johns had spoken to him of paying for Togodgue’s education, or giving him a sketch he’d used while preparing Slice to help the teenager, who hopes to earn a basketball scholarship.

But no such offer was made when Johns met Togodgue and his hosts, with the proposal only mentioned when O’Connell wrote his angry letter to Johns. 

Togodgue, who hopes to gain a basketball scholarship to study in the US, is pictured with his hosts Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin 

Togodgue’s work has been credited in the description next to Johns’ new painting at the Whitney 

Rollins was unable to settle the dispute when he visited Togodgue, Ruskin and Delgado in July, with lawyers then instructed on the teenager’s behalf.

Johns also issued a statement to the Post, saying: ‘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 but that he was hoping to first get a chance to know more about Jéan-Marc and his interest.’ 

He added: ‘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.’

Delgado was unhappy with Johns’ behavior, but also uncomfortable with the ‘aggressive’ tone of O’Connell’s letter to Johns.

However, intellectual property expert Siva Vaidhyanathan, from the University of Virginia, believes much of the criticism of Johns’ behavior was fair.

He explained: ‘What’s copyrightable about this drawing is that it has specific design choices.

‘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.’

Johns is considered one of America’s greatest living artists, with one of his works selling for $110m in 2010  

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

Vaidhyanathan also queried why Johns took two years to write to Togodgue after seeing his drawing, although other experts have said Johns’ usage of the teenager’s image was fair, because the painter’s work is ‘transformative.’ 

Attorney Sergio Munoz Sarmiento said: ‘We don’t want to get to a point where artists think I have to get my art vetted by a lawyer before they start the work.’

Slice now appears in Johns’ new exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City, complete with a text box next to it that explains how he was inspired by Togodgue. 

It says: ‘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.’ 

The artist and his muse have reached a licensing agreement both are said to be happy with, although no figures have been shared. Slice will be sold by the Matthew Marks Gallery, with proceeds going to John’s nonprofit. 

Togodgue’s original artwork remains at his doctor’s wall. Earlier this summer, he injured his wrist and had to have pins inserted at Yale New Haven Hospital.

He once again drew a diagram of the body part, but was advised to send his wrist surgeon a copy of the picture as a gift, instead of the original.   

Despite the legal drama, Togodgue and his hosts are thrilled that his artwork has been immortalized by one of America’s greatest living artists. 

They have visited the Whitney exhibition, with the teen posing with his drawing alongside the larger Johns piece it inspired.  

In an exclusive interview with, Togodgue’s hosts 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.’ 

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