SALISBURY, CONN. — The artist — not just any artist but perhaps America’s most famous living artist — wrote to the teenager this April. Jéan-Marc Togodgue, who grew up in the Republic of Cameroon in west-central Africa without running water or his own bed, asked the woman he calls Mom to read the personal letter.
Togodgue spoke French in his native country. And even if his English has come a long way since he arrived in the United States four years ago, he wanted to fully understand the words written by Jasper Johns. So Rita Delgado, who, along with husband Jeff Ruskin, hosts Togodgue as he attends the all-boys Salisbury School in Connecticut, read the letter out loud in their living room.
“I am an artist who lives here in Sharon,” Johns began, revealing that he resides just a few minutes from Togodgue’s home in Salisbury but giving little sense that his paintings typically sell in the tens of millions of dollars.
“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.
On May 25, Togodgue, Delgado and Ruskin took him up on that offer and made the short drive down Route 41 to the artist’s nearly 170-acre estate. They were met by Johns, assistant Maureen Pskowski and Conley Rollins, a former Goldman Sachs asset manager who now owns an inn and often serves as an unofficial representative of the artist. Togodgue stared at “Slice” and his drawing, which appeared to be taped to the canvas. Then he looked closer. It was a perfectly executed trompe l’œil; the tape was actually paint. Johns had also reproduced the image exactly, right down to the Jéan-Marc signature, a creation as distinctive as a graffiti artist’s tag.
The teenager says he was thrilled.
He stood next to “Slice” and smiled while Ruskin snapped a photo.
“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 interview requests, but in a statement emailed last week, he explained why he invited Togodgue to his studio.
“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.”
That might have been the end of it except that the story was too good not to repeat. And the more it was repeated, the more questions emerged.
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Between the lines
Ken Lauber, a composer and former colleague of Ruskin at the Salisbury School, heard the tale when he ran into Ruskin and Delgado at a coffee shop. He responded by asking whether they had considered that the sketch was Togodgue’s intellectual property.
Then Ruskin showed Johns’s letter to Brendan O’Connell, whose son, Matthew, is Togodgue’s closest friend. O’Connell just happens to be a successful artist who has been profiled in the New Yorker for his specialty: crafting luscious oils of scenes inside Walmart.
O’Connell already knew Togodgue’s history. That his father, Andre, had worked six days a week in Cameroon stocking store shelves. That growing up, Togodgue had shared not just a room, but also a bed with his younger brother.
“This isn’t like him doing the Savarin coffee cup or doing some pop appropriation like I do,” O’Connell says, referring to Johns’s 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.
“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 and well-known art adviser with a PhD in art history from Columbia University.
“’I should like you to be pleased?’” Moos says in a recent phone interview, quoting the letter. “This is so crafty, so well written in a way that seeks to force a particular resolution. It rubbed us the wrong way.”
For Moos and O’Connell, this spoke to so many themes within the art world, from artistic license and appropriation to the uneven balance of power between insiders and outsiders. In the era of Black Lives Matter, they found it particularly offensive that a White artist from the segregated South was using the work of an African teenager in this way. In mid-July, O’Connell sent Johns a scathing letter. In it, he openly accused Johns of theft and proposed that the artist pay to create a foundation to assist Togodgue and other artists and athletes from 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.”
But nobody, including Rollins, mentioned this offer to the teenager or his hosts before O’Connell wrote to Johns. And when Rollins visited Ruskin, Delgado and Togodgue in July, holding O’Connell’s letter, they couldn’t settle the issue. That’s when the lawyers were brought in.
“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,” Rollins stated in the email.
A way out
Growing up in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, Togodgue was convinced that sports could be his way into a U.S. college. His older brother, Samuel Dingba, had come to play basketball for Ruskin in 2010. Dingba got a scholarship to the University of Vermont 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 is likely to earn a scholarship to a Division III school. At 6 foot 5, he averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds a game last year playing power forward for Salisbury.
“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 coming around to the idea that Johns could be doing more for Togodgue when Rollins showed up at their home.
“If we were people of the means of Jasper Johns, what would we do?” Delgado says now. “We would do something different.”
But the tone of O’Connell’s letter made them uncomfortable.
“It was too aggressive,” says Delgado.
Johns appeared to stay out of the controversy as it escalated. There were no more visits, which won’t surprise anyone familiar with his career. The artist is famously tight-lipped and has done little to promote the upcoming two-city exhibition. He recently had a fall that his representatives say has slowed him.
Like so much of Johns’s art, dating to his famous paintings of the American flag in the 1950s, “Slice” is a natural conversation piece. Togodgue’s sketch isn’t the only outside element Johns used.
The work also includes a 1986 map of the galaxies by astrophysicist Margaret Geller. Geller, who has an appointment at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and received a $235,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1990, declined an interview but did confirm in an email to The Washington Post that she had no issue with letting Johns use her map for free. She sent Johns the map unsolicited in 2018.
Geller’s feelings aside, some art world observers say there are several issues raised by Johns’s use of the teenager’s drawing.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, an expert on intellectual property who directs the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, believes that Togodgue’s drawing is clearly copyrightable material.
“What’s copyrightable about this drawing is that it has specific design choices,” he says. “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.”
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There is also another aspect, one not covered by law: an obligation to be fair, Vaidhyanathan says. He wondered why Johns waited at least two years after he saw the sketch to send 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,” says Vaidhyanathan.
But New York attorney Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento, who has represented both artists and collectors in disputes over intellectual property, believes Johns may not have needed permission to use the work.
“The pro-appropriation people will say, ‘well, Johns is an artist and anything that Johns does is going to be transformative,’” he says.
Sarmiento also thinks it is important to respect the creative process and to consider the long tradition of artists incorporating ideas into their own works. That can be the urinal presented as art more than a century ago by one of Johns’s heroes, Marcel Duchamp, or the photograph of buffalo tumbling off a cliff appropriated by David Wojnarowicz in the 1980s.
“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,” says Sarmiento.
In the end, as Johns’s retrospective opens Wednesday, “Slice” will be presented in New York just as he would probably prefer: without an explanation from him.
He declined several interview requests to discuss the painting. Pskowski, his assistant, asked for emailed questions, as did Rollins. (The Whitney did not make its chief curator, Scott Rothkopf, available for comment.) More than a week later, Johns and Rollins responded by email through Chris Giglio, a spokesman brought in earlier this month.
Rollins did not address O’Connell by name but addressed accusations that Johns took advantage of someone with less power.
Johns, according to Rollins, did not know Togodgue’s identity until after he finished the painting and had Rollins ask Clark, the surgeon, to help him get in touch.
In August, lawyers representing Johns and Togodgue reached a licensing agreement. Both sides say that the agreement is private but that they are happy with it. “Slice” will be sold by the Matthew Marks Gallery, with the proceeds going to Johns’s nonprofit.
At the Whitney, Togodgue’s name will be included in the wall label for “Slice.” It reads 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.”
Earlier this summer, at a basketball showcase, Togodgue went up for a dunk and an opposing player jammed his wrist. He had to have pins inserted at Yale New Haven Hospital and, once again, Togodgue processed the injury by finding an image on the Internet and sketching the wrist in his drawing book.
He told Ruskin and Delgado he wanted to give the wrist surgeon the drawing.
This time, they advised him not to send the original. The doctor got a copy.