The internet, by rendering envelopes and paper datebooks obsolete, has, in effect, eliminated entire categories of creative expression--namely envelope art (see 'mail art') and collage diaries. Ironically, it is thanks to the internet that a master of those art forms, is being rescued from obscurity.
A few weeks ago I came across some very cool original collages and drawings on eBay, attributed to “COLOS,” a mysterious, but familiar name from the past. Many were on envelopes and cleverly incorporated postge stamps, addresses, etc. When I saw among them a piece collaged with foreign currencies about the foreign exchange company Deak-Perera (another mysterious name from the past), I figured it had to be the illustrator whose name I’d heard occasionally at Fortune, many years ago.
Hungarian-born Colos (originally Francois Szalay) was a prolific editorial illustrator in the late 70s, early 80s Working in many media (painting, drawing, collage, etc.) and with a unique view of the world (he came to NYC via Paris via a Communist Gulag), he could always be counted on to come up with a solution when art directors were at a loss for ideas. By the mid 80s editorial illustration had moved in a different direction, and from time to time, I would overhear art directors on the phone, telling him that there was “nothing right now …” Colos died in 1989 at the age of 60.
Since I rarely see original works of art that are so affordable, I decided to buy a few. There were so many incredible pieces that it took me a few days to narrow down which ones to buy. Luckily, I was more decisive than usual and managed to snag a few when I did. Because a week later, wanting to introduce a friend to his work, I went back to eBay and his work was completely gone. I then found out that everything had been bought by a private collector.
In the mean time, illustrators Stephen Kroninger and Victor Juhaz, (whose work you’ve seen whether you know it or not) also found Colos on eBay. Here is the amazing account written by Victor Juhaz, who knew Colos, that Stephen posted on his Drawger blog, along with the images.
Colos was a fascinating person, probably one of the most fascinating I've known in my life, and like most Hungarians, very Magyar centric, ego driven, brilliant and utterly opinionated, and of course, right. Endless stories, all memorable and better than fiction. He was a young man around 19 when he found himself spending a number of years in the Communist prison system, the Gulag, working in coal mines. He was also pretty inflexible and combative when it came to dealing with art directors and didn't have all that much good to say about them and the restrictions placed on his points of view in his work. Considering how bright his star had shined in the 50's the 60's through the 70's, even into the 80's, near the end of his life he would confess to feeling at a sort of dead end with regard to how to deal with editorial interference and seemed to imply that he didn't see much future in his career. His uncompromising attitude to his work and how it was to be displayed in a perverse way worked against him in that he is pretty much unknown to present generation graphic artists and students, which is a true loss in terms of what his work has to offer. His work was almost always engaging because it was very smart, very funny in a satiric way; the collages beautifully composed and logical even as they could be wild.
He started a visual diary in 1976 that developed quite a notorious reputation because of the content matter. In 1986 a museum was offering to exhibit the diary but with certain content edited because of the potential offensiveness. Colos was adamant about how to exhibit the work and declined the museum's offer. "They either accept it as it is or go to hell." When I read that in a PRINT magazine feature on him and his envelope collages, it sounded just like him. "Bullshit" was another favorite phrase.
Coming out of the brutalities and intrigues of the Communist system he also seemed to have developed an adaptive, very self protective, way of presenting himself to the people he knew. The Colos I knew may not have necessarily been the Colos others knew. He was careful about how and what to reveal about himself. This realization came later after his passing, talking to friends and noticing that we all had parts of a story but never the whole. Even after we pieced our versions together, there was an uncertainty about whether it was complete or even misleading.
He once told me about standing on a corner in NYC near Carnegie Hall right next to Count Basie. He turned to the Count and said, "It is because of you that I have one kidney." Basie looked at him confused and asked him to explain. Colos went on to tell him what a great fan he was of Jazz and how he was listening to Basie records in his apartment when (somebody must have ratted him out) the secret police broke in, confiscated the music, and took him down to the station where he was beaten so badly that one of his kidneys was ruptured. Then it was off to prison/the Gulag(?) for subversive activities. Basie listened to this and when the story was finished, said to Colos, "Let me buy you a drink." So they went to a nearby bar and had a few and talked some more. You can't make this shit up. And he had tons of stories like this. Every so often I think of him and miss those lunchtime conversations we would have either in the NEW YORK TIMES cafeteria or at a favorite hangout, a Brazilian restaurant not far from the TIMES, where I would join my friend John Cayea, the art director for the Week-In-Review and another brilliant Hungarian artist illustrator, Istvan Ventilla and the Romanian illustrator Nicolai Ascui. Those get togethers were head spinning events- John and I would just sit back and listen to the world explained from an Eastern European, Iron Curtain survivor, viewpoint. Ventilla has since disappeared, without a trace; it's been a long time since anything has been heard from or about him.
To see more envelope pieces and in a larger size go to Stephen Kroninger’s post. The following images are diary pages. There’s a website for The Diary, where you can see many pages. You can also order Francois Szalay - COLOS, THE DIARY, 1976 from Amazon.