Jasper Johns and Seventeen-Year-Old Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s Copied Drawing of a Knee

Celeste Fleetwood

Slice, ninety-one-year-old, Jasper Johns’ painting is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art.[1]  The painting drew inspiration from a 1986 star map, Slice of the Universe, sent to Johns by astrophysicist Dr. Margaret Geller and directly copied seventeen year old Jéan-Marc Togodgue’s drawing of a knee without the teenager’s permission or knowledge. 

Shortly after Togodgue moved to Connecticut in 2017 from the Republic of Cameroon in Africa, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus while playing soccer.  At the time, Togodgue drew the inner workings of the knee based on an internet image and gifted it to his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Alexander M. Clark Jr., where the drawing has hung in his Connecticut office.  Coincidentally, Jasper Johns, perhaps the most esteemed living American artist, went to the same orthopedic surgeon for longtime knee problems and that is where he saw Togodgue’s drawing.[2]

Prior to painting Slice, Johns warned Dr. Geller in a letter sent in early 2020 that if he lived long enough to finish a painting he was considering, that she would be partly responsible.[3]  Johns noticed that the star map resembled a stick figure; Johns’ paintings had long incorporated stick figures and occasionally astronomical imagery[4] so it was a perfect pairing.  However, Togodgue was not made aware that Johns had ever seen his drawing until the painting was complete. Then, Johns sent Togodgue a letter stating that, “I should have asked you then if you would mind my using it, but I was not certain that my idea would ever materialize” and invited Togodgue to see the finished painting in his studio.[5]

At the time, Johns had been discussing how to compensate Togodgue, with thoughts to pay for his college education or give him a preparatory[6] for Slice, but the teenager was not made aware of those considerations.  Before an agreement could be struck, artist Brendan O’Connell, the father of Togodgue’s friend, sent a letter to Johns accusing him of intellectual property theft by stealing a child’s art without permission.  Then lawyers were involved, raising questions of copyright infringement and whether Johns’ appropriation of the drawing could be considered fair use or transformative.[7]

A copyright infringement claim requires ownership of a valid copyright and unauthorized exercise of one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights.[8]  Togodgue owns the copyright to his drawing of a knee because it is an original, independent creation, fixed in a tangible medium of expression.[9]  There is direct evidence that Johns copied Togodgue’s drawing because Johns said as much in the letter to Togodgue and the silkscreen copy of Togodgue’s drawing is copied so exactly in Slice that it creates the illusion that the drawing is affixed to the paint with four pieces of tape.  There is also circumstantial evidence of copying due to access, since Togodgue and Johns shared the same orthopedic surgeon, whose office the drawing was displayed.

Had the dispute resulted in a lawsuit, the question would have been whether Johns has a fair use[10] defense or whether the use of the drawing is transformative.  A fair use defense considers: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and the effect of the use on the potential market.[11]  In this case, 100% of the copyrighted drawing was used in Slice and the nature of the drawing is Togodgue’s expression of the inner working of a knee; but, the drawing’s value did not decrease due to its use in Slice, in fact the original drawing, gifted to Togodgue’s orthopedic surgeon, has likely increased in value due to association with Jasper Johns.  A fair use defense in this case is questionable and similar to Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, the use was likely not transformative, since Johns copied the drawing exactly and in its entirety as a part of Slice.[12]

Luckily, the above questions of copyright infringement never had to be litigated because an undisclosed settlement for a licensing agreement was reached between Johns and Togodgue in August 2020. [13]  Shortly thereafter, Togodgue and his parents visited the Whitney to see the work displayed and Togodgue is credited by name in the painting’s wall label.[14]  Togodgue’s father Jeff Ruskin has said that he “like[s] the way Jasper incorporated Jéan-Marc’s work” and that he and his wife are “happy and relieved that it was settled in the end” but that they believed “it could have been settled earlier” such that “lawyers and strong letters would not have been necessary.”[15] Mr. Ruskin said that he is proud of his son’s art and that Togodgue may pursue art in college.[16]  Slice is being sold through Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and all proceeds will go to Johns’ nonprofit, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.[17]


[1] Sarah Cascone, The Complicated Story Behind Jasper Johns’s Dispute with a Cameroonian Teen Over a Drawing of a Knee (It Has a Happy Ending), Artnet (Oct. 1, 2021) https://news.artnet.com/art-world/jasper-johns-used-teenagers-knee-drawing-2016175.

[2] Id.

[3] Deborah Solomon, All the World in a ‘Slice’ of Art, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/13/arts/design/slice-jasper-johns.html.

[4] Jasper Johns, Mirror’s Edge 2 (1993) (depicting Galaxy M101 in the painting).

[5] Cascone, supra note 1.

[6] A preparatory is a drawing made before the final painting.  See Jasper Johns, Untitled (2020), https://matthewmarks.com/online/jasper-johns-new-works-on-paper (three preparatory drawings of Slice made with graphite, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper).

[7] Id.

[8] 17 U.S.C. § 106 (stating that a copyright owner has exclusive rights to reproduce the work, distribute the work, prepare derivative work, display the work publicly, and to authorize others to exercise any of the rights).

[9] 17 U.S.C. § 101.

[10] 17 U.S.C. § 107.

[11] See Blanch v. Koons, 467 F.3d 244, 259, 262 (2d Cir. 2006) (holding that the fair use factors favored Koons and that the use was transformative because the copyrighted work was used as raw material to communicate a message and for creative purposes). 

[12] See Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, 992 F.3d 99 (2d Cir. 2021) (holding that Warhol’s of Goldsmith’s photo for the Prince Series is not transformative because the purpose and function of the works is identical and the Prince Series retains essentials elements of the source material even though the Prince Series is easily identifiable as a Warhol).

[13] Sarah Cascone, The Complicated Story Behind Jasper Johns’s Dispute with a Cameroonian Teen Over a Drawing of a Knee (It Has a Happy Ending), Artnet (Oct. 1, 2021) https://news.artnet.com/art-world/jasper-johns-used-teenagers-knee-drawing-2016175.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.