Art by its very nature is a visual medium, but it’s important for anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the artistic process to look to the written word for guidance. For this iteration of Smithsonian Second Opinion, we asked Stephanie Stebich, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its branch museum the Renwick Gallery, to provide us with five recommendations of books to read about art.

Given the expansive collection of artists, artworks, and time periods she works with daily, selecting only a few titles from her office shelves was, she says, a pretty tall order. “American art is a very broad subject,” Stebich explains. “At SAAM and the Renwick Gallery, we see ourselves as the national museum of American art and craft. So what do we cover in our 44,000 works of art and counting? It’s a challenge.” With two million visitors last year, SAAM is among the top-five frequented art institutions in the country.

Stephanie Stebich is the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

“When they visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum, people are looking for the familiar,” according to Stebich. “Those classic standard-bearers— the American landscape paintings and photographs that they love— but I think they’re looking to be surprised too.”

The books listed below run from popular histories to exhibition catalogues to a photography book but all engage the reader with different possibilities of what art can be and how artists open our eyes to a richer understanding of the world around us.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee

A Pulitzer-Prize-winning art critic, Sebastian Smee tells the story in this book of rivalries among four 20th century male luminaries: Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas; Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning; Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

“It’s essentially a series of short stories and feels almost like artist interviews,” says Stebich. “Take the Pollock and de Kooning friendship which is about admiration, and the kind of rivalry that comes about because they are battling for the title of greatest living American artist of the 20th century. Yet, they have such deep appreciation for each other.”

At its heart, the book explores the notion of competitive friendship—how relationships fraught with a degree of professional and personal envy can catapult artists to new creative levels. For instance, Jackson Pollock’s “action paintings”— and famously uninhibited technique of flinging, dripping and splattering, moving energetically around his canvases— spurred a breakthrough for his older rival, Willem de Kooning.

The Art of Rivalry is part art history and part biography. By dissecting four pairs of modern art heavyweights, Smee explores the influential nature of jealousy, betrayal, and mutual regard these artists have for one another. Stebich’s only criticism is that female artist rivalries like those of Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux were not included.

Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America by Robert B. Pickering

Stebich’s next selection tackles significant questions for many museum goers: what makes something a work of art and how do curators decide which objects have both aesthetic and historic resonance.

Exhibition catalogues, says Stebich, are often “the only lasting element of something that is, by nature, temporary.” Fortunately she’s had the opportunity to see many museum shows across the country, including a 2011 exhibition, Peace Medals: Symbols of Influence and Prestige, at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that has a catalogue that discusses the changing nature of art. Drawn from the museum founder’s personal trove of silver and brass coins, the Gilcrease exhibition explores the historical and meaning of peace medals exchanged between explorers and Native American leaders, objects that weren’t necessarily categorized as art in their time, but take on artistic meaning in the present.

Starting with European settlers and continuing on through the founding of the United States, white leaders issued their Native American counterparts a kind of peace medal” to curry favor and build diplomatic alliances. Whether historical artifact or works of art, peace medals are not without controversy. Worn around the recipient’s neck, they often incorporate Native American imagery, representing a pledge of peace.

“Through the catalogue, viewers can see how the imagery changed over time through various presidencies and how the medals were valued by the recipients and incorporate portraiture of Native Americans, giving a sense of status to the sitter,” says Stebich.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern by Wanda Corn

Another catalogue, this from the Peabody-Essex Museum’s exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style, illustrates how one of America’s greatest 20th-century painters lived her life rooted in the principles of Modernism.

Celebrated for her bold, magnified flower paintings— which some find highly erotic abstractions— O’Keeffe is also known for drawing inspiration from New Mexico’s bare landscape and the bleached white of animal bones.

But Living Modern introduces another side to the master, considered a key influence on the feminist art movement. From O’Keeffe’s artistic practice to her fashion and home design, Corn, a historian of American art, presents clothing and artwork to explore the artist’s distinctly unified aesthetic. “The book explores creating identity for this artist through fashion,” says Stebich. “But it’s really about American material culture, the relationship between people and their things.” The way artists live can be as transformative for viewers to see, as their physical artwork in museums.

O’Keeffe is one of those iconic American artists, explains Stebich, who stands out in the collective notion of art legacy. “Even if you’re not an art lover necessarily and you don’t say art is a big part of your life, [you] know who Georgia O’Keeffe is, and the role she plays in American imagery and art,” she says.

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America by Stacy C Hollander

“Here we have these really charming, delightful family portraits or portraits of children,” says Stebich. “And there’s one child who stands aside or who is holding a flower, and the pictures are decoded to reveal the child has died and is rendered posthumously.”

This award-winning catalogue and exhibition offers new scholarship from Hollander, the acting director of the American Folk Art Museum. The publication highlights the ubiquity of visual commemoration in the early American period of high infant mortality and of cherished family members. To Stebich, it suggests the personal nature of art, how these portraits represented a way to connect with the past.

Securing the Shadows attracts her attention for the role art plays in memory and loss. “It reminds us that early Americans really had a predilection for portraiture,” explains Stebich. “Unlike Europeans, colonial Americans weren’t focused on history paintings— that would come later. So what do Americans value as they are settling a country, as they are trying to prosper, battling nature, Native populations, and illness? Portraiture, the art of being remembered.”

But the exhibition and images resonate for Stebich in the present too. “Historically, to us in American now, we may think, oh these problems of infant mortality are solved,” she explains. “But if we think about other parts of the world— about malaria and children, and access to vaccines— that’s really not the case.”

Burning Man: Art on Fire by Jennifer Raiser

Each August, nearly 70,000 people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for Burning Man, a temporary city where artists construct envelope-pushing, and often participatory, large-scale artwork. The photography book Burning Man: Art on Fire captures the singular experience of what she calls a “makers’ movement”— artists working communally and with a high sense of craft to “provoke, and to create joy, reflection, whimsy and delight.”

“These are artworks made outside of the traditional art market of art galleries and auction houses,” explains Stebich. “They’re often temporary in nature. Some are incinerated. Yet there’s a great deal of craftsmanship and technology involved, and a real sense of wonder.”

This year, museumgoers can experience a sample of this unique vernacular without traveling to a remote part of the Nevada desert. SAAM’s Renwick Gallery exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man opened in March and runs through January. “Visitors are amazed by the work in No Spectators,” says Stebich. “They’re trying to find an intellectual foothold for what this means. Is this a new movement in art?” Indeed, Raiser, a board member of the Burning Man Project, investigates that very question.

Stebich describes the exhibition not only as a spectacular visual ride, but also as an attentive study of this makeshift metropolis as an artistic phenomenon. The book shows how the festival celebrates art and community, while providing contemporary artists with an astonishing physical environment to realize their visions.

(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)