Nov 28 2012

Making WET by Leonard Koren

Joshua Bauchner

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Whenever I take a bath, I am faced with a question: To read or not to read? Of course, bringing printed matter near water is always a risk. But the reward—a transcendent moment of absorption in both liquid and text—is usually too large to forgo. And so, I have ruined numerous books and magazines, from issue after issue of the Economist to my grandfather's first edition of Architecture without Architects.

In a way, Leonard Koren's WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing was the sort of publication that refused to be contemplated in situ. It bounced, ecstatically, from essays titled "Concerning the Metaphysical Nature of Cigarettes" and "A Startling Report from the Company that Brought You Body Odor " to joyous image-based projects such as "Anatomically Shaped Water Basins" (detailed photographs of water retained within natural basins of the body) and proto–David Shrigley drawings by the enigmatic artist Futzie Nutzle. Many of these projects, as well as an essay by Koren, are collected in Making WET.

Koren started WET in 1976 after attending architecture school at UCLA. Disillusioned with the "heroic architectures du jour," Koren turned his interests toward "small, intimate environments: the kinds of places you go to feel safe and secure." He arrived at the bathroom: "Every bathroom, no matter how crude or sophisticated, comes equipped with all the elements of a primal poetry: Water and/or steam. Hot, cold, and in-between. Nakedness. Quietude. Illumination." Though WET was initially launched to sustain the momentum of a wildly successful party at a Russian-Jewish bathhouse, the magazine eventually came to define gourmet bathing as "an 'egalitarian' indulgence." That WET was in a way deeply frivolous was not lost on the editors. They freely admitted "it's a parody of all other enthusiasms."

Along with the familiar exhilarations of little-magazine production—makeshift offices overrun by cats, middle-of-the-night runs for greasy food, money troubles—Making WET offers moments of insight into the fertile late-'70s art scene in Venice and Los Angeles. But it's the irrepressibly energetic samples from the magazine, especially the superbly inventive covers, that tickle and wow. Among the best is a two-photo then-and-now cover featuring a mother and her three daughters in a tub (1957 and 1978) that winks at the norms of nuclear family documentation. Images of people bathing in curious places—an outdoor shower in the Costa Rican jungle, a cable-car bath high above the sea in Japan, a cutout "soaking trench" in a Venice living room—jump from awkwardly indulgent, to jealousy inducing, to wondrous. And there are the features that have gone beyond bathing, including the pitch-perfect (pasteup?) photo of Einstein holding a pack of cigarettes emblazoned "TIME" opposite the essay "Concerning the Metaphysical Nature of Cigarettes."

Eventually, Koren and his cohorts lost the vibe and shut down the magazine, rather than sell to "someone who would wring every last bit of magic out of it." He headed to San Francisco and took up studying the Japanese tea ceremony, eventually becoming a "design philosopher" who has authored books with titles such as Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement and How to Rake Leaves. These days, the pure joy of such unburdened frivolity seems hard to find, especially in print. Luckily, though, most of us have a bathroom, and it's just a few steps away.

Joshua Bauchner is an editor and writer currently working on a project about line waiting.

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