As one of the largest works on paper that Jean-Michel Basquiat ever executed, Ribs Ribs is an early example of the artist's unique and remarkable style. Self-restrained, yet bursting with a diverse range of rich iconographic details, this monumental drawing demonstrates Basquiat's incessant thirst for knowledge as he draws together and then disseminates his diverse range of interests including science, politics, childhood superheroes and his own rich cultural heritage.
Leading the composition is Basquiat's figure of a caped man, commanding yet also enigmatically transparent, his stylized rib cage clearly visible beneath the folds of his red and blue cape and re-enforced by the words RIBS RIBS written on either side of his sternum. In the figure's left hand is a mace-like object, a piece of ancient weaponry that was often studded with sharp pieces of metal and used by foot soldiers to attack an enemy but is now more commonly used as a symbol of authority, as in the Parliamentary Mace used in the British House of Commons. In his other hand, the figure is holding a large bone, plucked from a row of four that Basquiat draws to his right. Topping off the composition, the figures wears a 'crown of thorns'--a halo of light that hovers majestically above the figure's head. Rendered in Basquiat's distinctive schizophrenic style, parts of the composition are sparingly laid down whilst others are heavily rendered in primary colored oil paintstick. The rapid pace at which the artist works is driven by the speed of his thoughts as witnessed by the feverish renderings of the red and blue cape and the exquisite, more considered, detailing of the face. These are then complimented by a series of simple line drawings, giving the painting a more measured sense of balance.
Ribs Ribs contains many of Basquiat's most consistent themes including religion, power, death and the nature of the American masculinity. Typically Basquiat's figures can be divided into two camps--gods and heroes. From baseball players like Jackie Robinson to championship boxers such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Basquiat's heroes typically come from the worlds of sport and music. Yet with his distinctive red boots and blue and red cape, the figure portrayed in Ribs Ribs recalls the action hero Superman. Clark Kent was not the only member of a repertoire that Basquiat draw from his childhood comic books; a pantheon which also included Batman and The Flash amongst others. In addition to his secular heroes, Basquiat also drew on religion and from angels to voodoo holy men, the spiritual often played a central role. Ribs Ribs continues in this tradition by alluding to the theme of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and god's creation of Eve by removing one of Adam's ribs.
As can be seen by a work of this magnitude, Basquiat saw no distinction between his drawing and his painting practice. For him, there was no hierarchy between the two and his works on paper were artistically of equal importance as his paintings. As well as his technical proficiency, Ribs Ribs demonstrates his understanding of drawings place within pictorial culture. Basquiat not only knew how to draw, but he both embraced and enhanced the medium's fundamental purpose within art. As the critic Robert Storr pointed out, "Drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium" (D. Buchhart, basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 10). Basquiat had long admired other master draughtsman, particularly the intellectual scope and visual intensity of Leonardo da Vinci and the poetic nature of Cy Twombly's work. Basquiat often 'quoted' da Vinci's work in his own paintings, for example the anatomical proliferations in the Italian master's work has a clear legacy in Ribs Ribs. The lyricism of Twombly was a big influence on a young Basquiat. He admired how the older artist allowed himself the freedom to draw as he pleased, unrestricted by the conventions of the medium and critics have argued that by looking at Twombly's work, Basquiat gained permission to 'draw in the raw'--to feel able to produce work imbued with a uniqueness and intensity that has since become one of the leading factors in Basquiat's unique form of artistic expression.
Included in a number of important Basquiat retrospectives including the 2005 exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum and most recently in the major Basquiat exhibition at New York's Gagosian Gallery, Ribs Ribs is an important example of the artist's drawing practice. Epic in scale, yet intensely personal in nature, the artist's proficient hand is able to convey a dazzling range of ideas in concise fashion. Artist, poet and cultural flâneur Basquiat possessed a remarkable talent to capture the zeitgeist of his age. As Marc Meyer, the curator of the Brooklyn retrospective observes, "He papers over all other voices but his own, hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every cartoon character--even affixing his own copyright symbol to countless artifacts of nature and civilization to stress the point" (M. Meyer, "Basquiat in History," Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 48).