Where Everything's Thermal: A Conversation with Leonard Koren
By Victoria DaileyMay 25, 2012
LEONARD KOREN WAS THE FOUNDER and creative director of WET Magazine, which was published in Venice, California from 1976 to 1981. Its unusual subject matter — gourmet bathing as well as other esoteric topics — combined with its distinctive layout and design, made WET remarkable. I was a WET subscriber and the magazine's wit, depth, and style helped me get through the doldrums of the late 1970s.
Among the contributors were Matt Groening in his pre-Simpson days, Ed Ruscha, Leonard Cohen, Eve Babitz, and Lewis MacAdams. There were riveting interviews with Kenneth Anger, David Hockney, Dick Dale and Elvis Costello; and there were articles on unusual people including Henry Darger, Robert Smithson and Nikola Tesla. The best pieces were the most recondite — they covered such topics as psychic surgery in the Philippines, gourmet bubbles, insect erotica and the eternal nature of coffee. Getting WET was bliss.
Koren has just written a book about the history of the magazine: Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. I interviewed him in Hollywood, this past March, when he was in town for a book signing.
— Victoria Dailey
Gourmet bathing is a watertight case for the beneficial impact of sensuality on human affairs. The difference between gourmet bathing and meditation, say, or hydrotherapy is that gourmet bathing has no higher goals, rules, or disciplines.
It just is (you do it so you can just "be")...
(All excerpts from Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing)
Leonard Koren: When I was in college, as an undergraduate, I thought there must be more to life than accumulating money and buying things. I found myself, at about twenty-one-years-old, at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. This was a year or two after the San Francisco Zen Center had purchased it, and they were building a kitchen and doing a lot of remodeling work. A friend of mine also showed up there and they put us to work. They said that we could meditate if we wanted to, or not, and we could spend time in the baths. So we worked for three or four days and then I decided to try the Zazen. At the time I was smoking cigarettes, which I did for about three years. Meditating and giving up cigarettes were the two hardest things I had done in my life to that point. But even though it was so difficult, sitting still with your legs crossed for a long period of time (the pain of it), it was intriguing and I realized it was a path, so for a number of years, maybe twenty-five, maybe longer, maybe thirty or forty, I meditated every day. Then I stopped meditating about two years ago.
Like the costumes that are shed, the nakedness in bathing is psychological as well as physical. You get exposed to and touched all over by the same stuff you're mostly made of. Water doesn't recognize any one spot as prettier or sexier than any other.
Water wants it all.
There is a place called Sespe Hot Springs in Ventura County that was very remote, you had to hike in — it was basically a hole in the ground with hot water. It was intriguing to me that nature provided such a wonder — something that really fulfilled all our needs, for free! The view, the warm water, the smells! Sespe, Tassajara, and Esalen (which I also visited as an undergraduate), set the stage for revealing to me how miraculous bathing can be and yet, it's amazing how it's not a big deal. I like the equilibrium of how something is amazing but you don't have to make a big deal of it even though you highly appreciate it.
The other influence happened when I was nine or ten. I went back East to visit relatives in New York and one of my uncles took me to a Russian Jewish bathhouse. It was exotic and interesting and although I don't remember it from a sensual level, it was an unusual experience. I realized that bathing was an activity that people could indulge in. I remember, too, that there was food afterwards — it was great! Later, when I was in architecture school at UCLA, I visited a place that had a nice bath, and I began to take baths in the afternoon. I liked to take a bath after lunch. I know it is an odd time for it, but if you're self-employed and are kind of a dreamer, it works. Then in Japan I started to take a bath before dinner, at six or seven o'clock.
The past few nights I've been staying with friends who live in the Venice canals, and there's no flow restrictor on their shower. We have flow restrictor ordinances where I live in West Marin. I have been enjoying a really guilty pleasure, and I wouldn't do it all the time, because I would feel bad about the volume of water I'd be using, but it is amazing.
Bathrooms are everywhere. Just about everyone has one. And every bathroom, no matter how crude or sophisticated, comes equipped with all the elements of primal poetry:
Water and/or steam.
Hot, cold, and in between.
My girlfriend and I had an apartment in San Francisco that I bought about six or seven years ago. We remodeled the kitchen and the bathroom, and in a sense, we created the perfect bathroom. It was all sandstone, there was very little cutting; the walls were just one or two sheets of sandstone. I wanted something simple, a place where you could step into a very simple dimension and, really leave the world behind. I didn't want any of the iconography from the rest of the house. I didn't want to have any reminders of industrialized culture in the bathroom. It was very refined, very nice, with beautiful qualities of light. Then we began to have problems with noisy neighbors, and we had a kid, so we sold the place, and moved to the country, where I left behind my former, more rigorous criteria. Bathing is more about attitude than hardware, and I am appreciative of bathing just the same.
Growing up, we lived in a canyon above Beverly Hills. I would go up to top of the hill and be able to see all of L.A. I could see the airport on a clear day; the whole city was visible from that vantage point. It was a little bit removed, giving me a certain perspective, a meta-view of Los Angeles. The canyon was very idyllic, but the residents were always fighting "progress," and eventually my huge backyard, which was undeveloped land, a eucalyptus forest with streams and interesting native plants, was destroyed. The hills were leveled and many of the canyons were filled in for the development of expensive homes. It was devastating to my psyche. I always thought nature was the dominant, powerful force on our planet and that humans were subservient to nature. This was my first graphic example, my first experience, that nature was subservient to humans, and I realized that humans could destroy our planet very easily. It was extremely disturbing to me. Later, in college, I moved to Venice, which was basically a slum by the beach. But in Venice your prospect is out to the ocean, which is unlimited. It was nature, but there were some days in Venice, around sunset, when the sky was blood red and really freaky, yet beautiful in another way. But it was disturbing.
Yes, it was the degradation of the environment. It was so graphic, and there was no way to escape it. Perhaps if I was extremely wealthy I could have insulated myself, but I liked being outside, I liked looking at things in the world. When I was making WET, I was so preoccupied with my imagination, with my mind and with the social reality of the community; I didn't have much time to ponder the environment anymore. But when I stopped making WET, I felt I had to get out of this place. In a way, I felt I was released, that I had done my penance and my time served was up. I moved to a place that resonated more closely with my basic feelings and needs.
Initially I lived in San Francisco, which is the archetypal European city, with a definite center from which everything radiates. At the same time, I started going to Japan, where WET had been very popular among graphic designers, and I had the opportunity to go there for various projects. I was in Tokyo, ended up marrying a Japanese woman and we decided to spend half our year in Japan, the other half in the Bay Area, and for over ten years we did the same. In Japan, we were in Tokyo and also had a place in the mountains, the Japanese Alps, and we would go there for long weekends.
In Japan, I did various things, advertising copy for the Shiseido cosmetics company — I did their Christmas cards — and I came up with a new name for a political party because some of the senior executives at Shiseido were involved with it. I wasn't doing advertising directly, I was working in the artier fringe of marketing for some companies; I had various ideas for companies. In Japan, not everything is compensated with money but instead, through a system of favors, and everyone has a mental balance sheet of what is owed. For one of my first books, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers , I went to Shiseido and said: "Will you give me a grant to publish this book?" I made a presentation and they gave me the money for the first printing, based on my presentation and the other things I had done, including designing a color scheme for an electronics company building and music videos for Japanese TV.
Marin doesn't have the cultural vitality that Los Angeles has. L.A. is exuberant, vibrant. Northern California is different, and each place serves its own functions. Los Angeles is about going boldly into the future, and West Marin is about trying to maintain the past: they are diametrically opposed. But they serve different needs during different times of life. After spending time in Tokyo, whose greater metro area has thirty-five million people, I felt I had experienced a city. I loved it; it was a real city. Los Angeles will be Tokyo. It's just a question of time: twenty, maybe thirty years. The difference is that Tokyo has a superb transportation system, a very logical one. There is a subway that rings the inner city and various lines that crisscross and go everywhere. You don't need a car in Tokyo, and it's quite spread out. If L.A. had such a system, it would be a perfect place. It would be a megacity.
My stepfather was a psychoanalyst who had friends who were architects. He came from Germany and I remember the first time I went to Germany, I stayed with relatives of Walter Gropius, friends of my stepfather. He admired the Bauhaus and he used to let me build things. We built a room onto our house in the canyon, but my stepfather wasn't a good craftsman at all — my real father was an extremely good craftsman. He encouraged me to do things with my hands. My stepfather liked to do things, too, but he didn't have the predisposition to be a great craftsman. I found that craftsmanship was intellectually liberating and I found that making architectural space was desirable; it was really more mental than physical. It wasn't just construction, but I found that there was also pleasure in the deconstruction. By puttering around our house, I became interested in larger expressions of the built form, which was architecture, and when I was desperate as to what I was going to do with my life, I decided to become an architect and go to architecture school. I didn't finish my undergraduate degree. I went about half-way, but then I applied, and they let me in to graduate school at UCLA. It was a strange period in the culture! I could see quickly that the practice of architecture was not something that I wanted to do. It was a job, and I was interested in, for want of a better term, "art." But it was a great education. I spent time in the library and had interesting conversations with people who thought a lot about architecture. I did a tutorial for one quarter with the head of the Botany Department, Mildred Matthias. She was fantastic. We'd have a conversation, and then she'd give me ten books to read. I guess the idea was that I was supposed to read all these highly technical works, and come back and discuss them with her. This was on top of everything else I had to do! But it was my essential university education — talking with specialists — and I was grateful to her for expanding my horizons. I knew I didn't want to be an architect. I knew I wanted to do something, I just didn't know exactly what.
People confuse the word "aesthetics" with the word "beauty." I think there are periods when there is a disassociation from beauty because beauty has been considered a bourgeois value, but aesthetics is about the underlying structure of phenomena for artistic purposes. So if you are in a creative realm, particularly art, there is no escape from aesthetics in a larger sense. It is like asking: "Can we have good meals without food or air, without oxygen?"
I knew that typography was useful, I didn't think it was non-useful, but I just thought it was overwrought and that the simplest sans serif typeface could do the job. It was a utilitarian viewpoint. I'm not sure what sparked my epiphany at WET, but maybe it was when I met a few graphic designers and I realized the flexibility of all the fonts, how type could be set, and that certain feelings and attitudes could be conveyed by type. It could communicate a lot of information in conjunction with images.
Also, I went very far with typography, and then I came out the other end. I don't want my books to look like they were made by a graphic designer. There is an inherent conflict when you have a strong graphic designer involved, because he or she will want to express himself/herself, which is legitimate, often to the detriment of the text. Even though my girlfriend is a graphic designer who worked with me on the new WET book, my only criticism throughout was "that looks like a graphic designer did it, we have to pull back a little bit." The problem with a book is how to organize all the material and maintain coherence. A book is not a provocation like a magazine. Magazines tend to arouse you in ways that books don't. There is a certain calmness and orderliness to a book, so I tend to keep the type to a minimum.
WET started as a result of a bath party at the old Pico Burnside baths.
I don't remember specifically how Leonard Cohen and Paul Bowles came into WET. I assume one of our editors saw a piece they liked, wrote them or their agent, and got permission to reprint it. People like Matt Groening, on the other hand, were untested talents that phoned or wandered into the WET office asking if they could show their portfolio. In Matt's case he showed me a couple of small photocopied comic books made for his friends. I saw something wonderful and enlisted him to create cartoons and write copy — very absurd copy — for WET fashion spreads and other random tidbits.
The WET distribution system started really small — hand delivery to a few select shops — and grew significantly through the life of the magazine. Ultimately we had a couple of regional small press/magazine distributors, our own distribution arrangement with about 50 shops across the country, and in some cities (L.A., Portland, Columbus) we had the major magazine distributors — think Safeway and the like.
After it was over, some of the WET staff remained in Los Angeles, some left. I worked closely with two people I knew from high school. One ended up in Hawaii, the other in Oregon. Some ended up in New York because New York provided talent for WET; it wasn't just L.A. New York and Los Angeles are very similar, people go to these places who are very ambitious, they work really hard, and talent rises to the top; these are meritocracies. In some ways, creatively, New York and Los Angeles were interchangeable. Many New Yorkers were envious of L.A., looking at it with a critical eye, thinking that L.A. was an up-and-comer, hot on New York's heels, a city to be reckoned with, taken seriously, but I never encountered anti-L.A. prejudice. Maybe there was some prejudice on another level, but I wasn't aware of it. We had many New York subscribers.
I got invited to a lot of good parties. When Andy Warhol was in the neighborhood, he was introduced to me. I thought this was the way things were supposed to be. In spite of the foregoing, I had no idea of WET's impact at the time — I was too busy trying to make it all work.
I think magazines are a young person's game. But it's great; it's a great social binding. If I had tremendous financial backing I might do it again. But just to struggle making a magazine, absolutely not.
Victoria Dailey is a writer, curator and antiquarian bookseller. She lives in Los Angeles.
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