WET: How the 70s California New Wave Gourmet Bathing Magazine Turns up in Berlin

The Berlin specialty book dealer UDOLPHO presents an exhibition of WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, the new wave interiors publication that shaped California graphic design and post-punk attitudes in the late 1970s and early 80s. Here, cultural critic DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN explores the publication’s legacy.

When Leonard Koren initially founded WET Magazine of Gourment Bathing and had the term “Gourment Bathing” registered as a trademark, it seemed to be more like an eccentric outburst in the midst of the very particular scene of Venice Beach around 1976. Freak and hippy culture were a thing of the past, but an unbridled Californian hedonism continued to look for outlets and targets. Around 1976, the founding of magazines was not yet part of existing punk and fanzine culture. With his background in architecture, Koren’s magazine was initially supposed to pursue a particular interest in the field of interior design: sophisticated bathing. In doing so, it was possible to show playful interiors and interesting naked people, as well as realize crazy graphic design dreams. Furthermore, inspired by all kinds of representational forms, such as collage and contrast, which lie beyond the canon of psychedelic graphics, it was also possible to accumulate a large number of advertisements from the culturally still quite scattered world of the very early dawn of the Californian new wave.

However, WET was not only a success with advertisers in fashion, gastronomy, and architecture: Koren’s team was soon joined by people who would have a much greater influence that would stretch far beyond Californian culture. The graphic designer and cartoonist Gary Panter shaped the appearance of Californian new wave and post-punk counter culture like no other. And this post-punk also didn’t happen after punk; like British punk or its cousin from Cleveland, Ohio, it happened at the same time. One can also observe this by looking at the history of the Residents, whose independent record releases are advertised at various different places in WET. Gary Panter was not only responsible for creating these ads (and, later on, the covers of other publications that were run by the Residents’ own label, Ralph Records), but he also had immense influence on the editorial component of WET. Panter’s mannered, jagged, grotesque layout was absolutely and antagonistically contrary to the older competition of psychedelic graphics, LSD-ornamentation, and underground comics—yet shared with it the enthusiasm for complexity, abundance, and overkill.

Panter’s rise, however, also needs to be seen in the context of the opening of the magazine to all phenomena of a new underground culture far beyond interior design and avant-garde illustration. Performance art—such as the infamous transgressions of the early John Duncan (sex with corpses), representative of the very first signs of a new post-CalArts scene—is the subject of extensive coverage, and the repeatedly portrayed and interviewed Henry Miller acts as a cool father figure. New pop music floods into the magazine from every direction—even if the opposite of a taste- police had its say: Devo, of course sensational in 1978, are positioned right next to old rock, such as the J. Geils Band. The impression which one often has of very early manifestations of what would later become successful scenes, suggests that one is dealing with a closely linked but potentially very diverse provinciality.

The transition from a magazine for eccentrics in graphic design and architecture to one of a handful of global new wave magazines happened in a similar fashion to FILE, the magazine published first by General Idea in Toronto and then in New York. At first, a local project, around which a group of singular types gathers, but which then develops into the forefront of a movement that looks a little bit like something that one had always dreamed of. Debbie Harry was put on the cover of both magazines, and even if FILE always appeared to be more organized and better conceived, there are a whole host of similarities in terms of design and range of topics.


Yet while FILE was an artists’ project, WET developed out of the applied arts, with its most original contributors coming from the fields of graphic design and illustration. Alongside Gary Panter, this included the young Matt Groening, who is known to the world as the inventor of The Simpsons. Groening, who not only entertained American underground and city magazines with his two comic strips Life in Hell and Akhbar & Jeff for almost a decade, but also worked as a music critic, first began to experiment with his bunny characters at WET. One best appreciates the heterogeneous density of WET by looking at what became of it: on the one hand, The Simpsons and the Residents, and on the other hand, the Japanese horticulture books that Leonard Koren writes today—and lots of other things in-between, whose connections we can only reconstruct if we once again attentively leaf through the 34 issues of WET that were published between 1976 and 1981.

WET, The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, 1976–81, organized by Julian Göthe, is on view at Udolpho, Berlin, until Sept. 21, 2014. 

All images ©Leonard Koren

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