November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

by John Gruen

As he lay dying of AIDS in February 1990, Keith Haring asked for a pad and pen and haltingly outlined a child on all fours surrounded by lines emanating like rays of sunshine. This was the Radiant Baby, long his most famous image, and it was appropriate that he should reach for it at the end because it was the perfect symbol of his life and work.

Haring, who died at 31, had a certain childlike radiance himself. Once past teenage Jesus-freak and drug phases in Kutztown, Pa., he applied himself to his art with boundless energy and enthusiasm. In 1980 he started drawing with chalk in the New York City subways, and soon his colorful cartoony paintings and his witty metal sculptures were everywhere. He often created all the works for a show a few days before it opened, even painting every surface of the gallery itself. “When he’s finished a piece, there’s nothing that you could think of that you’d want to change,” artist Roy Lichtenstein told Gruen. “Even if he did something all at once…there just isn’t a false move.”

In biography, authorized often means sanitized, and there may be nasty things about Haring you won’t learn here. But Gruen, an art critic and author (The Private World of Leonard Bernstein), vividly re-creates Haring’s feverish and fecund life and times through interviews with the voluble artist, his devoted family and his colorful friends and associates. Their words form the entire text. By the end of the amply illustrated book, you forgive Haring’s self-promotion and fascination with celebrities as expressions of his expansive, embracing nature; his thick lines and sensuous shapes fill your mind as they once did city walls and gallery ceilings, cascading over every surface like a kind of pop, visual Bach. (Prentice Hall, $30)

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