In the story of art history, Robert Rauschenberg is, among other things, the man who killed Willem de Kooning. In 1953, the young upstart Rauschenberg took a drawing by the elder de Kooning, erased it, and put the blank page on display inside a golden frame for all the world to see. Abstract expressionism was dead and had been swept offstage, and the audience was primed and ready for a new generation—the generation of Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol: Pop. Erased de Kooning Drawing is a breath between movements, a final metaphorical slaying of a tottering old man, and in this version, Rauschenberg is the enthusiastic, revolutionary killer.

But a closer look at the classic story, as told in the great 2004 biography of de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, reveals a truer Rauschenberg, one driven, ironically, as much by love of the older artist's work as by the ambition to supplant him. De Kooning was about 50 years old and Rauschenberg less than 30 on the day in 1953 when Rauschenberg came knocking. "I was hoping to God that he wouldn't be home," Rauschenberg told the biographers, adding that he'd brought a bottle of liquor along for strength. De Kooning welcomed his killer "affectionately" and they talked warmly until Rauschenberg screwed up the strength to ask for the drawing—and to explain what he wanted it for. "I know what you're doing," was de Kooning's response.

"He really made me suffer," Rauschenberg recalled. De Kooning took out an entire portfolio of drawings and leafed through them. "I want to give you one that I'll miss," he told Rauschenberg, adding, "I want it to be very hard to erase." The one he chose was a "dense mixed-media image that contained, Rauschenberg said, 'charcoal, lead, everything. It took me two months and even then it wasn't completely erased. I wore out a lot of erasers.'"

Rauschenberg died Monday at age 82 of heart failure, and looking back on his career, these moments 55 years ago seem particularly telling. After Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg would never again put something so neat and tidy out into the world—and the physical process of the erasure was far from simple. (This was no fugitive pencil drawing.) Rauschenberg's lifetime of messy sculpture-paintings (he called them "combines"), layered screenprints, and transfer drawings were more full of the sweeping, emotive strokes of de Kooning's terrifically troubling women than the cool, collected attitudes of Lichtenstein or, say, James Rosenquist or Tom Wesselmann or even Rauschenberg's one-time love, Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg erased de Kooning only to bring him back in ghost form, never adhering entirely either to de Kooning's old-fashioned painterly romance or to Warhol's newfangled machine love. On that fateful day at de Kooning's studio in 1953, Rauschenberg told the biographers, "I was completely prepared to share (my liquor) with him." Both men were legendarily hard drinkers.

Rauschenberg's death feels like it hits harder than the death of any artist in recent memory, which sounds strange (quantifying deaths is a bad business) and makes very little sense. After all, the man was 82.

"I wasn't surprised when I heard," said new Henry Art Gallery director Sylvia Wolf, a new transplant from New York, Rauschenberg's town. "But I was shocked."

Rauschenberg feels as influential—as alive—now as he did when he joined the canon fully 30 years ago. Many critics saw his 2006 Combines exhibition, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as the unprecedented high water mark in his career. Although the works were made decades before, never before had so many of the combines—including the famous Monogram, a goat with a rubber tire around his middle—been shown together before, and as a group they knocked out pretty much every critic that came their way, and offered new insight into Rauschenberg. (I did not see the show, to my serious sorrow.)

In 2007, his creative fingerprints were all over the grand reopening of the New Museum. Its big group exhibition Unmonumental was full of assemblages by far younger artists whose work is unthinkable without Rauschenberg—who took many of his own cues from earlier trash-cobbling artists like Kurt Schwitters.

Rauschenberg famously said that he intended to operate in the gap between art and life; he also is known to have felt sorry for people surrounded by regular mass-produced objects for which they had no love. He did love them, and he used them in everything, eventually turning them against the commercializing aspects of their own reproducibility (Warhol, equally deliciously, turned them toward those aspects). In Rauschenberg, parts from a factory-made chair are as special as handmade brushstrokes because reproduction is as interesting as originality, and both, he seems to say, are deeply misunderstood ideas. In 1957, he made two nearly identical collages called Factum I and II, using not only machine-reproduced elements such as newspaper clippings but also dramatic brushstrokes. Lichtenstein deconstructed the brushstroke in his work, too, implying: One little repetition and the myth of modern painting falls to the ground. Isn't that a little too fragile?

According to Michael Kimmelman writing in the New York Times, Rauschenberg's mother made his shirts from scraps of fabric, but when he graduated from high school he wanted a "readymade" shirt. That mid-century economy of means paired with the genuine embrace of the average as an originating spirit accounts for the easygoing, particularly American attitude of his works. His most recognizable self-portrait is Bed (1955), which is just that, his lived-in single bed painted and hung on a wall, a twist on the abstract expressionist mode of large paintings representing the struggles of the soul. Rauschenberg's large painted surface depicted instead the visceral struggle of a body in bed (which broadens considerably when you recall that it was 1955, and Rauschenberg was gay, like many pop artists, in contrast to the strenuously straight generation of painters who went before them). Rauschenberg may have mocked the high and cerebral seriousness of painters like Barnett Newman—whose vertical "zip" lines Rauschenberg parodied by using car tires to make lines—but he didn't crush it; he transformed it into something physical, more real, more everyday. In questioning the myths of art, he didn't unseat art's ability to rise to mythic importance. He left behind all these seemingly living bodies. It's hard to think of his as gone.