Sunday at the Met With George: The Original Mad Man Finds Inspiration at the Museum

We tagged along, and got some Damn Good Advice

georgeloisgraphic Sunday at the Met With George: The Original Mad Man Finds Inspiration at the Museum

Lois’s work, influenced by art. (Graphic by Lauren Draper)

“You never see any real fucking New Yorkers at the Met. It’s always packed with people from god knows where, running around going, ‘Ooh, look at that.’” On a recent overcast Sunday afternoon, the advertising legend George Lois was plowing through the crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on his way to plumb its encyclopedic contents for inspiration. For decades, he has been coming to the Met every Sunday for what he calls his “spiritual day of worship,” and it has been a wellspring for the Big Ideas that have powered his work, from the eye-poking ads that sparked Madison Avenue’s so-called Creative Revolution in the 1960s to the sizzlingly provocative covers he designed for Esquire during the magazine’s heyday. Over the past few years, however, Sundays have taken on a new significance: it’s when he has to sit through another episode of Mad Men. Mr. Lois takes the program’s debauched vision of his industry as a personal insult, and he has been waging a one-man campaign against it.

Now 80 years old, with bright, quick eyes behind his trademark pair of Superfocus glasses (a former client) and a white Van Dyke offsetting his bald head, Mr. Lois can lay claim to that period of history more than just about anyone. After cofounding the upstart Papert Koenig Lois in 1960—the first ad agency to go public—he went on to create iconic campaigns for a string of clients that included American Airlines, Aunt Jemima, Jiffy Lube, MTV (“I want my MTV”) and Robert Kennedy’s senate campaign. At the same time, he shook up the traditional media world by applying his knack for indelible images to 92 covers for Esquire editor Harold Hayes—“on the weekends,” he says—that have since been taken into the permanent collection at MoMA.

Yet the world depicted on Mad Men seems to exist in a parallel dimension, he says. “Now Sterling Cooper or whatever the hell it is has become the epitome of what was going on in the ’60s in people’s minds, and it’s a show of scumbags, and they’re calling me the ‘original Don Draper,’” he said, even though he had nothing to do with developing the show. “People look at that show and say, ‘Gee, George, that must have been fun back then.’ Disregarding the fact that these ‘Mad Men’ guys are completely talentless.” (In Playboy, he put it more colorfully: “The more I think about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So fuck you, Mad Men—you phony, “Gray Flannel Suit,” male-chauvinist, no talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic, Republican SOBs! Besides, when I was in my 30s I was better-looking than Don Draper.”)

Talent, for Mr. Lois, isn’t sucked up from the bottom of a martini glass or found in the undergarments of obliging secretaries—bad behavior that he insists the show has blown wildly out of proportion. Instead, it’s found in art. That, at least, is one of the points he is trying to get across with his new book, Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent), a characteristically pungent distillation of a lifetime spent working with some of the most creative people in the world, from Andy Warhol (whom he sank into a giant can of Campbell’s Soup on the cover of Esquire) to Bob Dylan (who he famously persuaded to write the protest song “Hurricane”). Amid pieces of counsel like “never, ever work for bad people,” “never eat shit,” and “if you think people are dumb, you’ll spend a lifetime doing dumb work,” he talks about his weekly trips to the Met and writes that “the history of art of mankind can inspire breakthrough conceptual thinking, in any field.”

The book, Mr. Lois’s 10th, was inspired by the clueless design students he lectures to at the School of Visual Arts and elsewhere “who think ideas are born like Athena, full-formed out of Zeus’s head,” he says. “I say to the kids, ‘Who has visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year?’ And I’m stunned by how few of these design students raise their hands. You gotta see that the DNA is from someplace—it doesn’t come out of your ass.”

To demonstrate, Mr. Lois ventured into the Greek and Roman art wing. Dressed in khaki cargo pants and a dark zip-front sweater, he seemed at home among the ancient objects—which makes sense considering that several were once in his extensive personal art collection. One sixth-century B.C. black-figure Attic vase showing Hercules battling Geryon used to reside in his apartment until the late Met curator Dietrich von Bothmer called him up to inquire about it. “I like to stop by and look at it,” he said. “It’s a real beauty, isn’t it?”

Mr. Lois then walked up to a wasp-waisted bronze horse from eighth-century B.C. Greece, his gait slowed by a series of recent surgeries (though he still plays pickup basketball every weekend). “Look at that hunk of design,” he said. “There’s only one better, and it’s in Berlin. You hate to talk about money but I’m around dealers all the time and this would go for $10 million.” A nearly abstract early Cycladic figure of a woman “would be $30 million,” he says. “If somebody said you have 10 minutes to get something out of the museum before an A-bomb explodes, I would smash the case and take her out of here.” (An expert on Cycladic art, Mr. Lois once produced a catalogue for a 1990 show at the Merrin Gallery that New York Times critic Roberta Smith singled out in a review as being “rather badly designed and pretentious.” Mr. Lois remembers, “I sent her a nice fuck-you letter, saying, you know, you don’t know anything.”)

For a man whose advertising work buzzed with the pulse of his era, Mr. Lois is surprisingly uninterested in what most living artists are doing today. “Do I like contemporary art? Not so much. Damien Hirst is terrible. Cindy Sherman? You call that art? I prefer the shock of the old.” Archaic art is his passion. “I think it inspired my design, which is simple design,” he says. “You can understand it in a nanosecond. That’s why there’s no better design than a Corinthian helmet.” He paused. “Other than that, I think that the artist who inspired me more than any other is Zurbaran. His painting of a monk praying is just that, a monk praying. If you look at my Esquire covers, they look like a modern Zurbaran.”

Some of Mr. Lois’s most celebrated covers can be traced directly to classic paintings at the Met. That one of Mohammed Ali posing as Saint Sebastian, from 1967? Mr. Lois wanted to find a painting of the martyr that he could recreate with Ali to signify the ferocious criticism the boxer was receiving over his conversion to Islam and opposition to the Vietnam War, but “you didn’t have Google back then, and there was no book on Saint Sebastian paintings, so I came to the Met to find one,” he remembers. “I wanted the body to be composed but the head in anguish—I didn’t want Ali posing with a tortured body, it would have been wrong. I walked around and I couldn’t find anything and finally I went to one of the curators who I knew he pointed me to this painting that was credited [Andrea del] Castagno. Bingo!”

Mr. Lois took a postcard of the painting—which has since been reattributed to Botticini—to Ali. “And he said, ‘Holy Moses, George, that cat’s a Christian!’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s a Christian, he’s a saint!’ Then I realized what he was saying—he’s a Muslim—and I had to get on the phone with Elijah Muhammed to explain that it wasn’t religious, it was just symbolic, and he said O.K. Then, when we did the shoot, Ali was posing and he said, ‘Hey, George,’ which is what he’d say when he was about to lay one on you, and he pointed to the arrows and said ‘Lyndon Johnson, General Westmoreland, Robert McNamara’—he pointed to each arrow and gave it a name.”

Another well-known cover that arose from the Met’s collection shows a close-up of brutal McCarthyite Roy Cohn posed with an obviously phony halo. That was based on Petrus Christus’s “Portrait of a Carthusian” (1446). “I made Cohn as ugly as possible, shot him with the wrong lens,” Mr. Lois says. “When he was leaving, he said, ‘I bet you left-wing commie bastards are going to make me look terrible.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to make you look as ugly as I can.’” Warhol was a “giant fan” of the Esquire covers, Mr. Lois remembers. “Andy called me up after I did that cover and he said, ‘Ooooooh, you made Roy Cohn look ugly.’”