Still Making a Splash

by Jonathan Griffin

On Leonard Koren and WET: The magazine of gourmet bathing

‘If you had to have it explained’, says Leonard Koren, ‘then it wasn’t the magazine for you.’ Many people, when they first encountered WET magazine in Venice, California, in 1976, or later, in the hippest bookstores and clothes boutiques around the world, weren’t quite sure how seriously to take its now famous strapline: ‘The magazine of gourmet bathing’. That was the idea.

Koren, however, was entirely serious – up to a point. He saw his magazine as a work of art, reaching to define a particular sensibility that buzzed in the Californian air but which nobody had yet tried to pin down. ‘The fact that I can’t articulate what that sensibility was, precisely in words, is the same difficulty that you’d have articulating what a painting is precisely about,’ he says, speaking from his home in Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. Like all the best magazines, WET was about fostering a community, allowing like-minded people to find each another. During the five short years of its lifespan, WET included regular contributions from the little-known cartoonist Matt Groening, punk artist Gary Panter, and 26-year-old photographer Herb Ritts. For a significant few, Koren and WET created a centre for a centre-less city. Then it ended, and with it, Koren vanished.

He had trained as an architect, but in the early ’70s he found himself making things that looked more like art: prints, photographs and books such as 17 Beautiful Men Taking a Shower and, subsequently, 23 Beautiful Women Taking a Bath. Larry Gagosian, in his modest first gallery in west Los Angeles, even sold a few.

Koren’s fascination with bathing wasn’t limited to bathrooms; he also photographed mudbaths, steamrooms, swimming pools and the ocean. ‘The bathing environment occupies a very special place in our lives – a place for a certain kind of intimacy, certain environmental affects, and nakedness in all manners – both physical and metaphorical,’ he says. ‘I was interested in the more existential dimension of things.’ In California, the earthy philosophies of the hippie ’60s sustained themselves well beyond their allotted decade. Many still thrive today.

As a thank you to the models in his photographs (all friends posing for free) he organised a party in a Russian-Jewish bathhouse. The response was electric. The L.A. Times ran an article on the exclusive, louche event with a picture showing Koren shaking hands with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, creator of the monokini. As Koren tells it, the idea to capitalise on the buzz with a magazine came to him while soaking in one of his habitual afternoon baths.

In a new book by Koren, titled Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, he admits ‘Though I had no skills in writing, editing, designing, art direction, advertising, sales, publishing, or business generally, I didn’t consider this an impediment.’ WET (always in capitals) owed much to the D.I.Y. ethos of its time. New Wave, the cultural movement that grew out of Punk and later segued into 1980s’ Postmodernism, combined the resourceful economy of the former with the outlandish colour, humour and pretentiousness of the latter. WET was as New Wave as they came. Koren’s influences included Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine (‘drivel, but magnificently framed’), the luxuriant food-porn publication Gourmet, and odd bits of Japanese pop culture that reached Los Angeles across the Pacific.

WET’s only binding principle, says Koren, ‘was to give the readers something completely unexpected, tinged with absurdity, and sensuously packaged.’ The first issue ‘looked an awful lot like a newsletter’, but by the third issue (it was bi-monthly) it came on coated stock and ran to 36 pages. Its contributors gave their work for free, or were remunerated in kind. Charlie Haas, author of the recent novel The Enthusiast, says that ‘I’d get paid, if at all, in $100 credit at some clothing store that advertised in WET.’ Other writers were paid in pottery by the artist Peter Shire, who purchased advertising space with bowls and teapots. But for Haas, writing for the magazine was about self-identification within his chosen community. ‘You come from the provinces to the big city and you’re looking for your tribe. You see it and you connect with it very quickly. This magazine is part of the land of my people.’

Matt Groening remembers his first encounter with the shoestring operation: ‘I showed up at the office, Leonard said he wanted me to draw cartoons for WET, I agreed, then he said “I’m going to take you to lunch.” We went down to the Venice boardwalk, he walked up to a hotdog stand, and said “Anything you want!”’

The cultural commentator Kristine McKenna, then a young writer for the L.A. Times, was looking for a place ‘where you could do nuttier things’. In 1976, nobody was covering punk rock much, so she began reviewing albums and gigs. As time went by, ‘gourmet bathing’ became less an abiding theme than a guiding ethos, and Koren admitted more eclectic subject matter into the magazine. McKenna scored interviews with musicians such as James Brown, Iggy Pop and David Byrne, as well as Helmut Newton and David Lynch.

But WET was primarily an aesthetic experience. ‘The look of the magazine upstaged the content,’ McKenna says. What Koren recognised was that there is nothing indulgent about decoration, nothing superfluous about graphic design. This was how a generation was coming to define itself.

When asked about whether WET galvanised, or was galvanised by, the cultural currents that were moving across not just Los Angeles and the US but the entire developed world at this time, Koren answers cautiously. ‘It’s hard to separate your own ideas from the ideas of the place and culture you’re in.’ However he concedes that in one important respect, WET was a product of its era. ‘When you do a magazine, you’re dealing with machines all the time. One of the things I learnt from architecture school, in this incipient postmodern zeitgeist, was to try and subvert the machine somehow. That’s where a lot of the impulse came from for what later became known as Postmodernism or New Wave.’

Koren was no graphic designer, but he learnt as he went along. By the fourth issue of WET, however, he realised he needed help. He met the established designer Thomas Ingalls at a party, and convinced him to come on board. (His powers of persuasion were, by all accounts, formidable.) Ingalls introduced Koren to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, April Greiman, also a designer. Greiman’s contribution to the look of the magazine was huge; her radical typographical experiments not only gave WET its distinctive look but also helped formulate the aesthetic of West Coast New Wave.

Despite the magazine’s energy, ‘Nothing would be done simply for sensationalistic value,’ Koren says. ‘We felt intelligent, reasoned argument combined with absurd imagery was the best way to make certain points. Or very substantial photography and very absurd text.’ That’s why Steven Laub’s photographs of ‘anatomically shaped water basins’ (a close-up of an earhole or an armpit filled with water) sat alongside an interview with Henry Miller ‘on turning eighty’. Or why a stylised photograph of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolating in protest against the Vietnam War graced the cover of an issue that included profiles of David Hockney and Dr. Funkenstein.

That was controversial, but not as controversial as the issue featuring then-editor Lewis MacAdams’ article ‘Sex with the Dead: Art or atrocity?’ MacAdams reported on the recent case of performance artist John Duncan, who had recorded himself copulating with a female corpse before having an irreversible vasectomy. He titled the work Blind Date. The L.A. art community, particularly its feminist contingent, was (understandably) outraged and disgusted; the artist was ostracised, and soon left the US for Japan. MacAdams’ piece asked whether the avant-garde was guilty of hypocrisy in its proclaimed acceptance of – but actual squeamishness towards – the shattering of ‘real-world’ taboos. Many stores refused to stock that issue – whose cover also happened to be a picture of two pigs fucking. MacAdams recalls, ‘We lost the entire Midwest. Which I thought was kind of ironic.’

But, as Kristine McKenna notes, ‘The art world in the ’70s was so much more radical than anything now. You’d go to performances with naked people running around … you just got used to that sort of thing.’ Aside from its cultural commentary and zippy design, WET contained more than its fair share of naked flesh. ‘All my friends would see the pictures of naked people and assume I was frolicking in hot tubs with all these nubile cuties,’ Groening says. ‘All I can say is that the tubs weren’t that hot.’ Peter Shire, who was invited to join the Memphis Group after designer Ettore Sottsass saw his wacky teapots in WET, jokes that the magazine was ultimately ‘an excuse to get naked with girls’. Koren answers that ‘Considering that it was a magazine about gourmet bathing, it would be a bit strange if we didn’t have images of nudity.’ However, ‘It wasn’t pornographic… Sexuality was used for humour and as a fact of life.’

WET came to an end, as many magazines do, largely because of money. Although in WET’s case, it was due to too much money – specifically, an extravagant (though badly needed) cash injection from an outside investor. Koren admits that ‘we got a bit lazy’. By attempting to up the ante, increasing revenue through a smaller format, inferior paper stock, and doubling its frequency, the quality went downhill. ‘The once vibrant WET project had metamorphosed into a marketing exercise,’ Koren writes in his book. Disillusioned personnel began to jump ship, including WET’s longstanding (and long suffering) executive editor Elizabeth Freeman.

In November 1981, Koren put out WET’s 34th, and final, issue. Groening remembers: ‘I called up the office one day and said that I can’t be paid in pottery anymore. They said “OK, come down to the office on Monday and we’ll cut you a check.” So I went down to the office on Monday, and knocked on the door and there was no answer. I peeked through the mail slot and the office was empty, cleared out. I didn’t take it personally.’ The editorial staff had vacated the magazine’s offices at 1.30 in the morning, in order to evade the notice of creditors who had caught wind of the company’s demise.

After a few months of hiding out in a Venice garage with boxes of WET back-issues, Koren, whose magazine had been ‘the nucleus of some kind of strange tribe’, as he puts it, moved to San Francisco. He tries to explain: ‘This might be difficult to understand, but a certain percentage of people who grow up in L.A. never feel comfortable there.’

He began to spend more and more time in Japan, and after a few years moved to Tokyo, which he found ‘very agreeable’. He studied the Japanese tea ceremony, and published such Japanese-inspired books on aesthetics such as Gardens of Gravel and Sand, Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement, and Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.

What, then, is Koren actually like? Most people find it hard to say. ‘Leonard’s a mysterious person to me. I don’t think we’ve ever had an intimate personal conversation in all the time I’ve known him,’ McKenna says. ‘I never knew exactly what was motivating him. I don’t think it was money. I don’t know if it was lust for glory or attention. I think he just has a very experimental nature.’ ‘When I first met him, he’d call himself Leonard X – like some weird anti-cult, cult figure,’ recalls MacAdams. ‘There’s a coldness to Leonard – which isn’t actually the whole truth, but that’s where he hides. I think of him as one of the only geniuses I’ve ever met. Somebody that really created something out of his vision.’

Why did he wait so long to publish this book? ‘Part of it was that late in life,’ Koren says, ‘I had my first kid, a boy. He’s now four. Because WET was such a seminal moment in my life, and because those experiences were, I thought, useful to a young creator embarked on a journey of artistic entrepreneurship, for want of a better term, I thought that if I could put them in a book that was not preachy, that was somewhat interesting to read, then maybe someday my son would look through it and it might be helpful for him.’ It’s typical Koren: unbothered by nostalgia, always with one eye on the future.

First published: Dazed and Confused, Vol III.11, July 2012