MILDRED EUROPA TAYLOR
Arenowned U.S. painter Jasper Johns has reached a settlement with an African student after featuring a sketch the student drew into one of his pieces without his knowledge. Johns, who is perhaps the most important living American artist, came across Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s drawing when he visited an orthopedic surgeon called Alexander M Clark Jr in Sharon, Connecticut in 2019.
Togodgue, who moved to the United States from Cameroon four years ago, is an athlete and attends Salisbury School, an all-boys academy in Connecticut. He is hosted by couple Rita Delgado and Jeff Ruskin while at school in the U.S. Togodgue loves to draw, thus, when he tore a ligament in his knee while playing soccer in 2017, he drew the inner workings of the knee based on an image he found on the internet, according to artnet. He gave the sketch to Dr. Clark after he had treated him. Dr. Clark pinned the sketch to his clinic wall.
When Johns, whose works usually go for tens of millions of dollars, saw Togodgue’s artwork hanging at Dr. Clark’s office, he was captivated by it. Thus, he copied it to include in one of his latest paintings, called Slice, which comes with Togodgue’s signature at the bottom right
In April this year, Johns wrote to Togodgue to make him aware of what he had done. “I should have asked you then if you would mind my using it, but I was not certain that my idea would ever materialize,” the 91-year-old artist wrote without revealing his esteemed status. “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, who had never heard of Johns, went to see the painting at Johns’s studio in May. Excited, he posed for a photo with the piece. But when famous artist Brendan O’Connell, who was the father of Togodgue’s close friend, heard what had happened, he wrote a strongly worded letter to Johns, accusing him of intellectual property theft.
“The wealthiest and most respected Titan in the art world taking the personal drawing of an African ingenue” was wrong especially in the era of Black Lives Matter, O’Connell wrote, as stated by artnet.
He further asked Johns to create a foundation to support Togodgue and talented athletes and artists from Cameroon. Conley Rollins, an informal representative for Johns, told the Washington Post that Johns had already been talking through what to do for Togodgue, including helping pay for his college education, but the teen and his host family were not aware of those thoughts.
Soon, lawyers got involved, arguing over what constitutes a fair use of copyrightable material in fine art. At the end of the day, Johns and Togodgue reached an undisclosed settlement for a licensing agreement in August.
“I was happy and relieved that it was settled in the end, although Rita and I maintain that it could have been settled earlier and then the lawyers and strong letters would not have been necessary,” Ruskin said.
At the moment, the work is part of the Whitney’s presentation of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror”. It is being offered for sale by the artist’s dealer, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. The proceeds will benefit Johns’s nonprofit, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, according to artnet.
Togodgue and his host parents have also visited the Whitney and seen Slice in the museum’s galleries. The Cameroonian is now considering studying art in college.