Leonard Koren was surely one of the more eccentric people to ever run an influential magazine, although admittedly the category of influential publishers would not be expected to produce the most normal lot by any reckoning. Part of Koren’s charm, for sure, was his straight-faced insistence of sincere obsession over the superficially uninteresting world of baths and bathing. In the 34 issues that were published between 1976 and 1981, Koren’s signature creation, WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing was a tongue-in-cheek celebration of dousing oneself with water with a deadpan tone arguably undercut by Koren’s authentic interest in the subject of wetness.
Pitched somewhere in the general vicinity of Details and Interview and Raw, WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing showed the world, as much as anyone did, what the 1980s were going to be like. True to its title, the magazine’s visual gestalt was dominated by lush depictions of people, often women, bathing or swimming. Based out of Venice, California, it’s a contender for the most ineffably Cali periodical ever, reminiscent of say, the swimming pools artworks of David Hockney, who, surprise surprise, was an interview subject in the magazine’s 28th issue. In its interest in fashion and design, WET also pointed the way to a hard-edged, plastic decade that would be dominated by the likes of Patrick Nagel, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Jeff Koons.
Koren had the guts to forge his own path as well as a keen eye for talent. In addition to offering an early site for the work of Matt Groening, Gary Panter, Matthew Rolston, and Herb Ritts, WET featured Koren’s masterful deployment of tone, brilliantly deadpan textual style, and undisuputed visual chops in every issue.
Among other things Koren is a relentless, if frequently amusing, self-promoter, having produced two volumes (of which I’m aware) dedicated to his version of events behind the creation of WET (Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing and 13 Books).
Koren in San Francisco in 1985, four years after the last issue of WET
Koren’s interest in bathing is one of the mainstays of his career. Koren’s first published work, in 1975, was 17 Beautiful Men Taking A Shower, which is just that, seventeen black-and-white pictures of Los Angeles men like Ed Begley Jr. lathering up in Koren’s fancy bathroom. (Koren had wanted to do 23 Beautiful Women Taking a Bath but a friend “suggested that the less obvious artwork for a heterosexual male—and hence the more interesting—was the one with the men.” He took the advice.) More than a decade after the demise of WET, Koren was publishing works with titles like Undesigning the Bath and How to Take a Japanese Bath.
As Perry Vasquez points out, WET’s colorful, playful qualities didn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t pushing the envelope, as one of the covers late in its run indicates:
WET covers consistently presented strong and unforgettable statements. Koren did not shy away from intellectually challenging or controversial material. The image of the copulating pigs that appeared on the March/April 1981 issue is visually unforgettable but caused great anxiety among the ad sales team who feared it would make their job more difficult. By this time, WET was beginning to penetrate the mainstream so it was sold inside a brown paper wrapper to avoid giving offense at the supermarket checkout line.
Kristine McKenna, WET’s music editor from 1979 to 1981, aptly writes that the magazine “espoused a post-hippie philosophy of pleasure, sensuality and play,” but methinks in her use of the term “anti-materialist” she doth protest too much. She explains that Koren frequently didn’t pay contributors or staff but that “what Koren offered in lieu of money was an arena for people to develop whatever creative gifts they had.” Fair enough. For his own part, Koren strikes much the same note, saying that “WETs operating bywords were ‘cheap is good.’”
But would an anti-materialist liken his goals to that of the world’s largest soda pop conglomerate, as Koren did in WET’s opening issue? Read on: “WET is a magazine devoted to upgrading the quality of your bathing experience. Hopefully, in the great American tradition of Coca-Cola, doggie diapers and Pet Rocks, WET will become one of those things you never imagined you needed until you find you can’t live without it.”
Interest in bathing might technically qualify as “anti-materialist”—lavish possessions are not required to enjoy the process of aquatic submersion—but the topics, tone, and visuals of the magazine surely reeked of well-heeled entitlement, pure and simple. The style the magazine had the same shiny and sleek appeal as an expensive container of Voss bottled water when it wasn’t serving as a precursor for that most disposable of ‘80s celebrities, Max Headroom. And Koren’s manner of disbanding the operation had a similarly flippant air redolent of some kind of privilege: Once Koren became bored with the routinized process of running an established magazine, he thought about trying to sell it to someone but decided against it, commenting, “I felt better about dumping the magazine altogether and letting its memory live on undefiled.”
Still, the influence of WET can’t be denied, taking an honorable place alongside Slash, SPY, and Ray Gun as short-lived magazines that cut a bold aesthetic and editorial line that would come to be cherished by the generations to follow. For an issue-by-issue description of every issue of WET and a cover gallery, see here.
Get even WETter, after the jump…