If you’re anything like me, a trip to the Art Institute is equal parts awe and frustration. In the rush to see my favorite pieces-the ones that feel like old friends-I rush past countless treasures, vowing to stop and take a look “next time.” Now that it’s going to cost me $12 a pop, I need help. So I asked six curators to weigh in on the unsung heroes of their respective departments, and tell me what I’m missing.

Photography: Courtesy of The Art Institute Of Chicago
Department: American Art
Old friend: (below) Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930)
Hidden treasure: (above) Hale Woodruff, Twilight (1926); from a landmark exhibition of African American artists at the Art Institute in 1927
Impress your friends by saying:Twilight is stylistically bold and inventive, casting European modernism into a new American idiom.”
Department: Photography
Old friend: (below) Harry Callahan, Chicago (1950)
Hidden treasure: (above) Artist Unknown, Untitled Victorian photocollage album [butterfly]
Impress your friends by saying: “Sixty years ahead of the avant-garde, Victorian women were already experimenting with photocollage, as in this whimsical and surreal combination of watercolor and photographs.”
Department: Asian Art
Old friend: (below) Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831)
Hidden treasure: (above) Conical Bowl with Blossoming Plum, China, Jiangxi Province, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)
Impress your friends by saying: “The bowl’s steel-blue glaze is the result of a firing accident, during which the iron-rich glaze reacted with wood ash on the surface, creating a rare work.”
Department: Contemporary Art
Old friend: (below) Roy Lichtenstein, Mirror in Six Panels (1971)
Hidden treasure: (above) Vija Celmins, Night Sky #2 (1991)
Impress your friends by saying: “Celmins’s quiet and luminous work takes on the most expansive of subjects-ocean waves, deserts, the moon’s surface, and night skies.”
Department: European Painting and Sculpture
Old friend: (below) Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-86)
Hidden treasure: (above, detail) Édouard Manet, The Mocking of Christ (1865)
Impress Your Friends by Saying: “By emphasizing Christ’s knobby knees and plaintive expression, Manet, the bad boy of Parisian art circles, shocked the public by presenting a Christ who was all too human.”
Department: Ancient Art
Old friend: (below) Egyptian, Mummy Case of Paankhenamun (c. 945-715 BC)
Hidden treasure: (above) Roman, Portrait of the Emperor Hadrian (2nd century AD)
Impress your friends by saying: “The complex character of the man who inherited the Roman Empire at its peak and avoided the military quicksands of Mesopotamia and Parthia is seen here. And he was the first emperor with a beard.”