PHOTO: Leonard Koren Dazed&Confused Magazine
Welcome to ON BEAUTY, a monthly feature highlighting creative, like-minded people who inspire us.
As you know, here at In Fiore bathing is practically a religious experience for us. When we found out we had the opportunity to interview artist/author Leonard Koren, the man who created a magazine dedicated to the extravagance of bathing—WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing—we jumped at the chance. Koren was the founding editor and art director for the premiere avant-garde magazine, which ran from 1976 to 1981 and featured talent like Simpsons creator Matt Groening and photographers Herb Ritts and Guy Webster.
Reading Koren’s books make you stop and reevaluate how you define beauty. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers makes you appreciate beauty in the imperfect, the mundane. His new book What Artists Do makes you look at your own craft, inspiring you to even look beyond it. Speaking with Leonard Koren over a pot of tea for a couple hours and expect nothing short of transformative thinking.
This is a man who as a teenager banished his boredom by building a traditional Japanese Teahouse in his backyard. Enjoy.
WET Magazine: Mar/Apr 1979 & Dec/Jan 1977
I think it's interesting that you’re most known for two totally opposite things: WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, an absurdly decadent magazine and bringing Wabi-Sabi—the Japanese aesthetic of finding beauty in the imperfect—to western culture in 1994 with your book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. To me, flamboyant WET seems like the antithesis of minimalist Wabi-Sabi.
LEONARD: I think you're right. Ostensibly they seem very different—Wet was very at-the-moment pop culture and Wabi-Sabi is really the antithesis. But to me, they are the same in the sense they are both aesthetic sensibilities. Like when WET first evolved the first reactions were “What a ridiculous thing. A magazine about gourmet bathing—what a stupid thing to do.” We found out later as we went along that if people asked what WET was about after they saw the actual magazine, there was no way of explaining it to them that would make sense; it's like explaining a joke to somebody.
But a lot of people did get it, people who were creative and interesting. So the same thing with Wabi-Sabi in a sense that one person looks at something and says “What is this dirty broken thing? It’s not shiny; it’s not perfect, what’s the point of keeping it? Why not just buy a new one?” Whereas another person can look at that same object and see beauty. There are certain aesthetic sensibilities that resonate with certain people and it's prior to any kind of intellectualization about them—it sort of bypasses that part of the mind. There are some people who say to me about Wabi-Sabi “Oh, it's something I've always felt. You just articulated it in a way that I can now incorporate it [Wabi-Sabi] in my description of my art.”
PHOTO LEFT: WET Magazine, Aug/Sept 1976. PHOTO RIGHT: Leonard Koren
The bathing was always part of it but it became a bigger expression, and then I realized at a certain point that gourmet bathing was a metaphor for a way of looking at life generally.
So getting back to your thing about Wabi-Sabi and WET… they were both sensibilities that I didn't feel were present in the culture that I knew at that time. And I felt that they [Wabi-Sabi and WET] were things I wanted to fully immerse myself in. I felt there was a personal need—it wasn't a messianic drive.
But you published a magazine, you wrote books—you didn't keep these sensibilities to yourself for your own personal needs.
I found out at a certain point that I could make a living writing books. So then it was a question of, well, what should the books be about? Some of the first books I did were just meant to be practical. I thought, “What is a practical body of knowledge people might need? I can write a book on that and people will buy it.” But then with Wabi-Sabi and a couple little books before that it was more about “What practical body of knowledge do I need? What is the question that I am interested in hearing the answer to? What is it that I want to explore?” And then it's a question of making it clear and emphatic enough for other people to get into it. If I was writing about something incredibly obscure—let’s say I'm interested in the composition of the dried blood of mummies. No matter how well I present it there's an inherently small audience for that.
Select books by Leonard Koren
Let’s talk about how you define yourself. When I was doing my research I saw that you were described as everything from an architect, artist, and writer to a bath aficionado. So how do you identify? And did you teach yourself to write or is just something that came naturally?
A writer to me is somebody who sits at their desk every day and their discipline is writing, and they aspire to write beautiful sentences. When I read books that are too beautifully written it makes me feel like I'm suffocating a little bit.
I like it clever, I like clever writing. I enjoy it but it doesn't serve my purposes. My background is from before architecture was art, and the reason I wrote my current book What Artists Do is in a way because I wanted to clarify what I mean as the job of the artist. I think of myself as an artist fundamentally because I'm not a scholar. There's a way that which scholars approach things, rigorous and there's an ethos of good scholarship that I just don't adhere to. I see the domain I fit into most comfortably is art, but I've never self-identified myself as an artist because why bother? I have to say I'm an artist who writes books about sort of aesthetic designs, semi-philosophical things. That may sound a little silly or pretentious. The most functional definition is: I’m a person who makes conceptual tools to aid creators in their work. And by conceptual tools, I mean I come up with paradigms, taxonomies, definitions that I communicate in the form of books that I write and design.
Lets backtrack for a second and talk about WET. In my research I saw that before you created the magazine, you were throwing bath events.
I was doing what I called bath art. My two most successful pieces were “Seventeen Beautiful Men Taking a Shower” and “Twenty-three Beautiful Women Taking a Bath.”
At the time I was a painter as part of a mural painting group called the Los Angeles Fine Art Squad. It was a big deal at the time. I remember Robert Rauschenberg came to one of our painting sessions and said “Oh I wish I could paint with you guys. I have to go to Gemini G.E.L. and make some prints.” The Doors actually gave us the money to do it [the murals]. And so through that I met people who collected art in LA and ended up funding my bath art.
After I finished all the bath art projects, I wanted to give the models something, but I didn’t have any money at the time. So I decided to throw an event as a thank you. We ended up renting an old, Russian Jewish bathhouse in Los Angeles. I financed the event by having my other friends who were artists, actors, and art collectors pay for admission.
It happened on a really amazing night in LA – It was a warm balmy night and everybody was really up for it. The party generated a tremendous amount of energy because people didn't know what to expect—most of them had never been to a bathhouse. So WET was an outgrowth of the bath events. I realized that a magazine is a social phenomenon too—it's not just people buying a physical artifact. So for the advertisers, for the writers, for the staff, we would have events to kind of keep up that energy. We had parties in New York too—one at the Mudd Club. David Byrne came to our parties in LA and in New York.
How did the magazine actually start?
WET started off with an artistic impulse –there was an interest in this thing called bathing but not in any conventional way. I had this epiphany to make a magazine about gourmet bathing, which seemed to be oxymoronic at the time. Now it doesn't seem strange at all—but at the time it was combining two different ways of looking at the world. So I first started with different aspects of the bathing environments and rituals. But, because I lived among artists and designers in Venice [California], my frames of reference were the unusual.
WET Magazine Covers: Jan/Feb 1980 & July/Aug 1979
How did stars like Debbie Harry and Richard Gere end up on the cover?
We had a couple of photographers that were very close to us, one named Larry Williams. He was in New York and he told us he was shooting Deborah Harry and asked if we were interested. Richard Gere’s cover was more typical—his manager in LA kept asking us if we'd be interested in putting this hot young actor on the cover. Then photographer Herb Ritts, took pictures of him for something else and told us Gere would be great for WET. I wasn't convinced because up to that point we hadn't had celebrity covers. But finally we did Richard's cover in New York at Larry William’s studio. We had a lot of fun and then our paths would often cross afterwards. Richard Gere had a good sense of humor—I was in New York and I ran into him in Greenwich Village and he was sort of yelling at me for having these hideous pictures of him on the cover of the magazine. Saying his nose was bulbous. He of course was joking.
WET Magazine Covers, Oct/Nov 1976 & April/May 1977
Your writers covered much more than just the art of bathing. Headlines like “Five Ways to Humiliate your Pet” and an article questioning whether necrophilia is “that bad”…
The bathing was always part of it but it became a bigger expression, and then I realized at a certain point that gourmet bathing was a metaphor for a way of looking at life generally. There’s a literal aspect to it, which is interesting—sophisticated bathing and related things—but it was really a metaphor because at the time it was so absurd. It required we realized that we were dealing with a nonlinear mindset in the magazine and so there are relationships to things. At the time it was so absurd that a lot of people didn't get it. It's like in film you cut two things together and your mind is going to try to make some kind of sense of make some kind of relationship between these two things.
Your book What Artists Do just came out. Where can our readers get it?
They can order the paperback on Amazon.
Yeah, none of my books are electronic. I like the totemic quality of a book object. There are certain special objects in our lives that we like having around just because they give us some sense of knowledge or power or potentiality or possibility. And I think of books like that.
Each of our overly large brains manufactures meaning. Our intellects cannot let something we preceive as a possible pattern go by without having the thought, ‘Surely it must mean something.’
—Leonard Koren, What Artists Do