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Art

WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, Which Celebrated Hot Tubs as a Metaphor in '70s Venice, Gets a New Book (NSFW)

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Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 3:09 PM
click to enlarge Table of contents from an issue of WET - COURTESY LEONARD KOREN
  • courtesy Leonard Koren
  • Table of contents from an issue of WET

It was in 1977, in a bathroom in Berkeley, that architect Mark Mack put his body on the line for his fellow man.

As a photographer stood by to record the action, a naked Mack gingerly lowered himself, ass first, into a bathtub. The shoot had a simple objective: Demonstrate how a man could enter a bath without burning his balls.

Printed with a hilarious, faux-modest black bar across Mack's genitalia, the story was a classic piece of editorial for WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing.

It was not the only irreverent piece the Venice-based magazine ran. After all, the masthead featured the publication's phone number after the phrase "in event of extremely good news." And its first party was held not at a bar but a bathhouse called Pico-Burnside Baths.

"There were people in tuxedos and people naked," remembers architect Fred Fisher, who cruised the music and food of the bash with his wife and new baby.

But WET was far more than high jinks -- it was a steamy evocation of the bathing experience, from rural natural spring to urban bathroom, as documented by artists and writers decades before America fell in love with the spa. WET, the subject of the new book Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing (out April 17), was sensual not sexy, provocative not sexist, as liable to feature men in various states of undress as women, not to mention delicious photos of the bathing environment.

click to enlarge A classic cover from WET magazine which documented bathing long before America's spa-infatuation. - COURTESY LEONARD KOREN
  • Courtesy Leonard Koren
  • A classic cover from WET magazine which documented bathing long before America's spa-infatuation.

"We were honest when we did it. It was: no bullshit," says Leonard Koren, the magazine's founder and editor and author of the new book, which documents the struggle to produce the magazine. "There was no agenda other than to please ourselves first, and then the reader."

During a dizzying five-and-a-half-year run, from 1976 to 1981, WET ran such images as a triumphantly naked woman dripping from a mud bath set up on a famous art collector couple's lawn to a cover photo of another couple scampering through a sprinkler -- he in pants with a visible bulge, she in high heels and a swimsuit. It featured the indoor pool, complete with filter and pump, which artist Peter Alexander fabricated from the pit automotive mechanics use to stand under cars for oil changes -- located in Alexander's studio, a former car repair shop.

"WET was a cultural nexus," Fisher says. That culture emitted from the Venice of the time, where artists and architects who would go on to change their fields, like Robert Irwin and Thom Mayne, experimented. Yet WET's influence rapidly outgrew its locale, driven, in part, by its look.

The magazine was a seemingly spontaneous collection of off-kilter visuals, a brash breakaway from staid, on-the-grid layouts. It became a high-water mark of Southern California graphic design, due to its mix of aesthetics from Koren, art director Thomas Ingalls and contributions of artists like John Van Hamersveld. By the time Van Hamersveld got involved, he was already the man responsible for iconic images like the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street cover and its notorious Sunset Boulevard billboard, plus the classic poster for the equally classic surf film Endless Summer.

click to enlarge From WET magazine's Mudbath series - LEONARD KOREN
  • Leonard Koren
  • From WET magazine's Mudbath series

WET's "eccentric layout" drew artist David Fobes from San Diego to the magazine, he says, but he also connected to the magazine's larger gestalt. "There was a whole cadre of artists in San Diego, who were kind of desperate for alternative culture that generated from the West Coast. Not New York," he says, and WET provided that.

Like water itself, WET flowed beneath the surface.

"It had a potency that was greater than its size," adds Alexander, the artist.

click to enlarge More from Mudbath - LEONARD KOREN
  • Leonard Koren
  • More from Mudbath

Though the content could be insouciant, Koren says he was serious about its production. "WET had a certain power and dynamism in it because we were extremely serious and disciplined about what we were doing, even though the subject matter might have seemed frivolous," he says. "It's the depth that resonates in the deeper recesses of the brain, but you don't want that effort to weigh on the person reading it. You want them to encounter light."

Koren, who had trained to be an architect before turning to art, made the conscious decision that WET would be a piece of art that expressed itself as a magazine. He felt that art could be more powerful outside of the gallery scene, where it was expected and where it catered to the same group of people. "Art should have a more subversive aspect to it," he notes.

WET affected people where they were least expecting art to appear.

click to enlarge Topical Shower in Venice, Jan-Feb 1978 - JIM GANZER, COURTESY LEONARD KOREN
  • Jim Ganzer, courtesy Leonard Koren
  • Topical Shower in Venice, Jan-Feb 1978

In the world of WET, bathing serves as a metaphor. Immersing ourselves within a bath frees us from the usual constraints of life, Koren notes. "We let go of most of the roles we play in the outside world: father, mother, worker bee, artist, brother, taxpayer."

In a bathroom, naked and submersed in life's essential elements -- water, light and air -- we return simply to "a state of being," Koren adds.

Soak that in. Just don't burn yourself along the way.

Follow Tibby Rothman on Twitter. Also follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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