First published in 1976, WET was a magazine about gourmet bathing. Once you’ve digested that fact, and plunged head first into the wacko world where pigs make love in primary colours and dogs smoke pipes whilst brushing their teeth, you’ll be better off. In general.
Click images to enlarge.
Leonard Koren was having a bath when he had a Eureka! moment and decided to make a magazine about the art of bathing. Early issues of this brainwave included toothpaste ratings, interviews with swim teams, features on waterbeds, world guides to nude beaches and one particular article entitled, pricelessly, ‘Tales from my toilet’. As Koren told i-D online, WET was “wholeheartedly about embracing the absurd”. With cover lines like ‘Nothing but the naked truth’ and ‘Is language a virus?’, WET was cutting the edge off everything else around, and, ever so coolly and unintentionally, changing the future of graphics, editorial tone and the power of magazines as cultural commentators. During WET’s reign (1976-1981), the editorial extended to interviews with David Lynch and David Hockney, covers featuring Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry and Elvis Costello and work from Leonard Cohen and Matt Groening, before he’d started drawing yellow people. The WET offices were on Venice Beach, and issue-release parties were held at pools or in Turkish baths, where they would listen to songs like this. From the sounds of things, life was sweet.
36 years on, through Imperfect Publishing, Koren has released a book about the life and times of WET called Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Now the kind of brain that printed a beefed up frog sweating from pumping iron, wearing a big grin, yellow-rimmed shades, a sweatband and a WET T-shirt is the kind of brain we want to get to know. So we asked Koren a few things about bathing, absurdism and .coms.
It’s been 36 years since the first issue, how do you feel looking at copies of WET now? Old WETs look like lovable friends from another time of life. Surprisingly though, many of the WET covers still strike me as fresh, even iconic. Some of the illustrations and photographs inside the magazines also suggest these same enduring qualities. But a lot of the editorial material and some of the graphics—particularly the advertisements—feel hopelessly nostalgic.
Tell me about the first party at Pico-Burnside Baths. What were people wearing? What were they dancing to? The party developed as a way of thanking all the people who had modelled for my various bath-art projects. The party was held in an old, funky Russian-Jewish bathhouse in a nondescript neighborhood of central Los Angeles. The models came for free and everyone else—artist friends, art collectors and miscellaneous creative types—paid admission, which covered all the party expenses. People were attired in everything from suits and ties to absolutely nothing. Everyone seemed to have a fabulous time. The music? Whatever made bodies writhe in 1976. I remember ‘Shame, Shame, Shame.’ playing really loud. For a good blast from the past crank this track way up.
You started the concept by taking pictures of your friends in the bath, did they mind? I was actually making what I termed “bath art.” Friends and acquaintances modelled for my various bath-art pieces: ‘17 Beautiful Men Taking a Shower’, ‘23 Beautiful Women Taking a Bath’, ‘Pagan Baptism’… Everyone conveniently got into the spirit of what I was doing. Perhaps I was very persuasive. Or maybe the sensual allure of the bathing situations I contrived was irresistibly appealing. Or both.
i-D Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Terry Jones, described you as a ‘maverick’ of graphics. You studied architecture first, what turned you to graphics? After completing my architectural studies I realised I didn’t want to be an architect. I detested the idea of clients. When I started on my bath-art journey, I realised that some graphic arts skill was unavoidable. Initially there didn’t seem too much mystery to it. Pick up a pencil, a paintbrush, a camera, dash off some text on a wonky typewriter. But as time went on I found that much greater graphic sophistication was necessary to keep WET powerfully engaging. I guess the term “maverick” means that WET was graphically inventive in a way I thought best, in contrast to what others at the time thought best. That’s probably an accurate description of my attitude then.
You used lo-tech methods, pushing the boundaries of graphics. It was a totally new aesthetic, why did you go for it? You evolve a “new aesthetic” by experimentation a.k.a., trial and error. This is the only methodology that makes sense on a journey of artistic discovery. Put another way, if you follow your idiosyncratic impulses, you will inevitably “push boundaries.” The lo-tech methods we often used at WET were a function of ingenuity in the face of a non-existent or radically restricted budgets.
What do you think of magazines and .com culture today? Which ones do you read? It’s a tough time for magazines. I assume most will eventually only exist electronically on little cute hand-held devices. Unfortunately that’s not a very appealing prospect from my perspective. My personal magazine choices these days are typically bourgeois: The New Yorker and World of Interiors.
What’s the best bathing experience you’ve ever had? My peak bathing experiences all have profoundly religious overtones. A characteristic of these religious moments is that there is no “better” or “worse,” “higher” or “lower”. So sorry, I can’t tell you which experience was best.
Do you have a favourite WET cover? Probably the cover with two pigs f*cking in bright primary colours.
What was the most controversial thing you did for WET? And did you enjoy it? Probably running the “Sex with the Dead: Art of Atrocity?” article. Oh yes, I enjoyed it.
Buy Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing here.
Text: Sarah Raphael
Images courtesy Leonard Koren