Robert Rauschenberg: The Wild and Crazy Guy

What made Robert Rauschenberg a great American artist? His embrace of just about everything

Burton Berinsky / TIME & LIFE Pictures / Getty

American artist Robert Rauschenberg standing in front of his painting of President John F. Kennedy, 1967.

It may be the least of the many things that Robert Rauschenberg will be remembered for. But in summing up the great legacy of the artist, who died on May 12 at 82, let's pause to remember that he won a 1983 Grammy Award for the cover of the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues. Something about that feels right. It's hard to think of a better match for Rauschenberg, a demiurge of creative disorder, than the band that said, "Stop making sense."

What Rauschenberg passed on to everyone who came after him was an idea of art as a very...