Courtesy Leonard Koren
Courtesy Leonard Koren

From “WET” to “Wabi-Sabi”: Leonard Koren’s Adventurous Aesthetic Journey

The author discusses his nearly five-decade-long creative trajectory and his first exhibition, “What why WET?,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome.
By Spencer Bailey
June 1, 2023
31 minute read

Leonard Koren may have written nearly 20 books over the past four decades, but he doesn’t consider himself a writer. “I would say I’m a creator,” he says. “I’m interested in exploring things that I’m curious about and trying to figure out what it is that makes them curious to me.” Koren’s curiosities over time have veered especially toward elements of Japanese culture, from teahouses and tea ceremonies to rock gardens and onsens, explored in books including New Fashion Japan (1984), 283 Useful Ideas from Japan (1988), and How to Take a Japanese Bath (1992). Perhaps his most widely known book is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994), which introduced—cemented, even—the term wabi-sabi in the West and has become a cult classic over the nearly 30 years since its publication.

Koren’s prolific publishing output has its origins in WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, which put him on the map as a notable cultural arbiter and, to take a phrase from the title of his latest book, “curious aesthete.” Now the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, “What why WET?,” on view through Aug. 25, WET was a short-lived but transformative publication that from 1976 to 1981 captured the zeitgeist through its intelligent, irreverent focus: bathing, however broadly defined. As the exhibition clearly shows, WET has proven to be timeless in its sensuous appeal, bold aesthetic, and playful editorial approach, one that’s at once sophisticated and silly.

Here, Koren, who’s been living in Italy since 2020, talks about his creative journey from WET to Wabi-Sabi, and his post-WET immersion into Japan.

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View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
View of the “What why WET?” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)

Let’s start with the MACRO exhibition. What was it like for you to unpack WET, those five-plus years and thirty-four issues, in exhibition format?

It was an interesting experience, but not from the point of view so much of a WET retrospective for me. I was asked to do this exhibit by the director of the MACRO [Luca Lo Pinto]. Because I like him, and because I thought it might be something I could involve my teenage son in, and because I thought I could meet some like-minded people here in Rome, I decided to do it. But I have trepidation about doing anything about WET because it’s forty-five years in the past. I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do related to it, although I’m still very affectionate about it.

Almost immediately, I had an idea about how to design it. The process unfolded rather quickly. Luca’s an incredibly open-minded, very interesting person, and the staff at the museum was superb—they executed all of my ideas. At the end of it, after the opening night, what I realized is that the reason it works is because I used a part of my mind that I hadn’t used for a real long time, and that was my intuition. I totally flew on intuition. The story of WET, I knew pretty well, and the images, I knew pretty well, too, so I could just concentrate on how to tell the story in an exhibit format, never having done an exhibit before. There were issues of scale, there were issues of fidelity, of pictorial reproduction, and everything really surpassed my expectations.

The big takeaway for me—what I learned and what I got from it mainly—was that, gee, I’m an old person. And the older you get, the more hesitant you are to use your intuition, because with intuition, you stand at a fifty-fifty chance or more of failing. We rely more and more on our rational mind. But working on books, if I really want them to go where I want them to go, I really do have to extend myself in a way that only intuition will take me.

There’s a soundtrack at the exhibition—the songs of the WET office in the late seventies and early eighties. What’s playing?

There are about a dozen songs. Basically, a song by an L.A. group called Love, one by Fleetwood Mac, one by Talking Heads, one by Iggy Pop, one by the Rolling Stones. I used to think of music as energy. It was a drug, and we’d use different kinds of music, different kinds of drugs, to power our mentality. It gave us energy.

Tell me about the magazine’s subtitle: “Gourmet Bathing.” I understand that Interview, Gourmet, and, as you’ve put it, “the emphatic dogmatism of Vogue” were all influences for you, but where did this phrase "gourmet bathing" really come from?

Well, prior to making WET, I did what I called “bath art.” I wanted to make art. I had this impulse to make art. It was really the only way I seemed to fit into the scheme of society. But what kind of art? For a lot of reasons, it ended up being “bath art”—art that had to do with bathing imagery and people bathing. I used a lot of my friends and acquaintances as models, and to repay them, I had a big party at [the Pico-Burnside Baths] a funky, old, rundown Russian Jewish bathhouse in L.A. that nobody knew about.

Nobody had been to a bath party in L.A., and I was purposely ambiguous about what would occur. But the people I invited—the models, my artist friends, art-collector types—they were all game. It happened to be one of those fortuitous nights in L.A. when everything was warm and people were up for something exciting. The social energy created was immense. Everybody was astounded. The Los Angeles Times did an article about it; a lot of celebrity-type people showed up. It made me wonder, what am I going to do with all of this social energy I’ve tapped into? I’d never really connected with the public in such an immediate and powerful way.

Taking a bath in the afternoon one day, which was my habit at the time, I just came up with this idea: I should make a magazine about “gourmet bathing.” And I don’t know where this idea came from. I didn’t really know what gourmet bathing meant. Right now, it has a lot more coherence. After the hot-tub booms and people spending a lot of money on their elegant bathing environments, it makes a lot more rational sense. But at the time, it was just a pithy, resonant combination of words that felt right.

After the bath, I told my girlfriend at the time, “I think I’m going to start a magazine about gourmet bathing. What do you think about it?” She didn’t ask me what gourmet bathing was, but knowing me well enough, she just said, “Yeah, I think that’s not a bad idea.” So I proceeded to do that. Luckily, I was naïve and self-confident enough that I persisted until the magazine gained traction in the community.

Top row, left to right: The May/June 1976 cover of “WET.” The April/May 1977 cover of “WET.” The August/September 1977 cover of “WET.” (Courtesy “WET”) Bottom row, left to right: The May/June 1980 cover of “WET.” The December 1980 cover of “WET.” The September/October 1981 cover of “WET.” (Courtesy “WET”)
Top row, left to right: The May/June 1976 cover of “WET.” The April/May 1977 cover of “WET.” The August/September 1977 cover of “WET.” (Courtesy “WET”) Bottom row, left to right: The May/June 1980 cover of “WET.” The December 1980 cover of “WET.” The September/October 1981 cover of “WET.” (Courtesy “WET”)

Your fascination with bathing began when you were in architecture school at UCLA, right?

Yes, it actually began before I went to architecture school. I went bathing in natural hot springs throughout California with friends. I was always impressed that nature bequeathed these amazing places to us. It seemed to be really of a supernatural nature, the beauty combined with the sensual comfort, the warmth, and the mentally healing properties.

But in architecture school, for some reason, I became really interested in Japanese architecture, specifically the Japanese teahouse. This was the model of the ideal small, intimate environment for me, except I realized that it was a little bit too particular and culturally specific to gain widespread acceptance. For some reason, I made the link with bathing environments, which are small and intimate, and most people have one in their home.

I began to explore what existed in the L.A. subcultures in terms of interesting bathing environments. I got inspired. By that time I knew that I was probably never going to be a conventional architect, because my interests were too rangy. I didn’t have the patience or the tolerance to deal with clients. So out of architecture school is when I started making bath art, and that segued into creating WET magazine.

About a decade ago, in 2012, you published the book Making WET. I love your descriptions in the book of WET as a “spirited five-and-a-half-year assault on good taste and linear thinking” and a “wholehearted embrace of the absurd.” To somebody who’s young now, WET probably looks cool and vintage and not so radical, but it was quite radical at the time.

Well, this is the thing about things that are culturally successful: The good parts get absorbed into the culture and seem like they’ve always existed. Or you don’t know what preceded it. You don’t know where it comes from. We’re great cultural scavengers, and people like to pretend that they invented everything. It’s the libertarian spirit in the arts.

When I wrote that book that you’re referring to, it was really the kind of wisdom that you only have retrospectively. When I started WET, I was just going forward and operating on instinct. What happened was, I made something that was appealing. It was a venue that attracted a lot of interesting creators to the WET office. I had the good sense to employ them the best way I could. All together, we made WET.

WET was actually very much the result of the creative community. It wasn’t a formal creative community. It was an informal creative community that even extended to New York. L.A. and New York, I discovered at that time, were actually the same city with different geographies. There was a constant movement of creative people between L.A. and New York. People in New York, I discovered, idolized Los Angeles because the image of L.A. was lounging around, sunshine, greenery, et cetera. But the work ethics in L.A. and New York were the same. Young people at the time working for WET would work through the weekends and all night to get things done. There weren’t any other cities in the United States that I knew of that you could do something like that.

Koren with the “WET” staff in 1980 in a recreation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
Koren with the “WET” staff in 1980 in a recreation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting. (Courtesy Leonard Koren)

You’ve previously noted that all the art and editorial contributions throughout the magazine’s duration were without financial compensation. It seems like it must have been a rather seat-of-the-pants operation.

It became clear that the people who actually did the, let’s say, less creative, administrative work—the people who sold ads, the people who just kept the doors open and the office functioning—had to be paid regular salaries. But people who showed their work in WET, I thought of it, and they thought of it, as quid pro quo. They were getting something and they were giving something. WET was providing a venue that was seen by the kinds of people they wanted to be seen by.

I found it interesting to learn that The Simpsons creator Matt Groening had created work for WET.

Yeah, Matt did a lot of things for WET. Matt sought WET out and wanted to be a part of it. We published a couple of his cartoons, and also enlisted him to write copy for our party reviews and fashion articles. At one time, we were approached—one of the many times I was approached—to do a book about WET while making WET, and so I commissioned Matt to do something, a little piece called “Forbidden Soaps.” I think that all his cynicism and hesitancy and brilliance comes through. He had done a column in WET called “Forbidden Words,” so this was an extension of that.

At the time, Matt was a completely unjaded newcomer to Los Angeles. He wasn’t a successful Hollywood tycoon with the longest-running show on TV.

It was the poet-composer-playwright Loren-Paul Caplin who came up with the title WET, right?

Yes, I asked about a dozen or so friends what they thought a good name would be. Loren-Paul Kaplan came up with the word wet. Now it seems obvious. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but I liked the word wet because it has a lot of connotations. It’s graphically succinct, it’s easy to play with, and it’s a fun word.

What were some of the more extraordinary bathing experiences you uncovered during your work at WET? There were spreads in one issue featuring a cable-car bath in Arita, Japan, that I found pretty incredible.

Gee, this is the toughest question you’ve asked. I seemed to, at the time, find myself in baths a lot.

I really liked this mud bath that an artist named Rabyn Blake had in her backyard in Topanga Canyon [in Southern California]. She used it to create works of art and would videotape people bathing in it. We became friends. During the early days of WET, I asked her if we could use it for a WET party and she said sure. It wasn’t very large. The bath was only big enough for two people at a time. But the quality of the mud was extraordinary. It was silky, like a pancake batter. And it was clean because her partner [Eli Sercarz] was a pathologist, so there were no little nasty bugs in it. I think around two dozen people showed up. It was a beautiful, sunny California day, but you leave the bath with a lot of mud on your body. So I had to print out a sheet explaining to people that they have to try to scrape off as much mud as they can as they leave the bath, and put it back into the tub or else soon the mud supply would be depleted.

Another bath I really liked a lot—it doesn’t exist anymore—was the steam bath at Tassajara, which is a Zen mountain retreat in the Carmel Valley. It’s about, as the crow flies, thirteen miles inland from Big Sur. The San Francisco Zen Center had purchased it years before, and there was this ramshackle concrete structure over a source of a hot spring. It was a beautiful environment, the way the light came through a corrugated fiberglass roof. There was a sense of timelessness and also the primordial qualities. It was restorative, it was poetic, it was an ultimate bath. Subsequent flooding destroyed it, and they had to build a more conventional steam bath, which is still nice, but nothing as extraordinary as what was there.

Koren at the time he started “WET.” (Courtesy Leonard Koren)
Koren at the time he started “WET.” (Courtesy Leonard Koren)

The theme of alchemy seems central to WET, both the social alchemy of the magazine’s community and the bath parties, as you were alluding to earlier, but also the alchemic act of bathing itself. Were you conscious of this alchemy effect that the magazine was having at the time?

Well, the magazine was really buzzy, and a lot of people who became super-hip culture icons showed up at WET events just by word of mouth. Celebrities wanted to be in WET. The photographer Herb Ritts kept coming by with photographs of this young actor named Richard Gere, insisting that he’s going to be the next big thing and we’d be really well-served to put him on one of our covers. I didn’t like the idea of celebrity covers, but one of my co-workers at WET, Elizabeth Freeman, thought it might be a good idea and that Richard Gere was really cute. So we decided at one point to see how celebrity covers [would] work for us. We were the edgy, counterculture-but-sophisticated magazine, and they were bringing their Hollywood hoopla, and we were mirroring it somehow.

The imperative that I felt as the ringleader of all this stuff was that WET had to keep being fresh; it had to keep making conceptual somersaults to be a new experience with every issue. It wasn’t comfort food for the mind; it was something else. Every issue was a jolt of creative otherworldliness. And that’s hard to sustain. But as long as we were doing it, we were out there on the—I hate this metaphor—crest of a wave. It was really like that. You don’t really know what you’re doing; you just know that you’re out there and you don’t really have any peers, but you’re getting feedback that you’re doing something really special.

The January/February 1980 cover of “WET” featuring the actor Richard Gere. (Courtesy “WET”)
The January/February 1980 cover of “WET” featuring the actor Richard Gere. (Courtesy “WET”)

In 1992, you published the slim volume How to Take a Japanese Bath. Several concepts in it were new to me, including the “après bath” and the notion of “spiritual dirt.” I also knew onsens were a thing in Japan, but I didn’t realize there were three thousand or so of them. Tell me about your journey of putting this little book together and the knowledge accrued.

After stopping WET—and I stopped WET at a good point; I’d learned everything I needed to learn from doing it, and it couldn’t go any further without basically becoming pablum for the mind—a void occurred in my life. All of a sudden, not publishing WET, I was irrelevant to my culture. But it did give me an excuse to finally leave the gravitational pull of Los Angeles.

During the time we were publishing WET, a lot of Japanese people used to come to the office, because the Japanese are connoisseurs of trendy. I asked one of the Japanese people who was coming there if they would help me go to Japan by booking hotels and stuff like that. I went to Japan, got really inspired, and then started a new chapter of my life where I started going to Japan a lot.

I also started making books with big publishers. Then, at a certain point, things changed in the publishing industry. Salesmen began taking over editorial roles, and I decided that I either had to quit publishing books or do them in a new way. And I thought, perhaps with my experience with WET, I knew enough about the distribution and marketing of publications to publish a book. So I decided to try to do a modest book.

I was at a hot spring in Japan, and it just dawned on me that I should maybe make a book about the Japanese bathing ritual. I observed my fellow bathers there—all Japanese—and realized some of them were not adhering to what I believed to be the proper Japanese bathing routine. They were taking shortcuts. And actually, one of the shortcuts left me with a feeling of mild disgust. So I felt totally justified in making a how-to book about Japanese bathing that would even be valuable to Japanese people.

The book came together very rapidly in the course of one bathing session. Then I sought out an illustrator to illustrate it. One of the Japanese illustrators I admired most was Suehiro Maruo. His comics were incredibly beautiful and evocative, but he chose to work in the sex-and-violence genre, and I certainly didn’t want to do a sex-and-violence book about taking a Japanese bath. But we talked for a while, and he agreed to do this very benign, poetic book with me. It was a lot of fun. It actually did well in the marketplace, which emboldened me to keep publishing books.

Bathing is, of course, a form of meditation. Also in 1992, you published Noise Reduction: A Ten-Minute Meditation for Quieting the Mind, which I’ve found to be an incredibly simple and effective method. It’s all about counting breaths, basically. Could you speak about this book, too, and how it connects to your WET and bathing journeys? Was it all part of a larger direction you were going in?

Well, after publishing WET, during my activities in Japan, I became quite curious about Japanese fashion. My agent in Japan invited me to a fashion show by Comme des Garçons, which I was interested in because of the nature of their boutiques in Tokyo at the time. The show I went to was in a tent outside a former Olympic stadium designed by Kenzō Tange. It was an extraordinary structure, and the tent was also sort of extraordinary.

The demeanor of the attendees in the fashion show was quite impactful on me. It was more like a religious revival than any fashion show I’d ever seen before. It affected me. It moved me somehow. Like my epiphany in the bath with WET, this time it was a nap. Waking from a nap and having this thing pop into my head: “I should do a book [New Fashion Japan] about Japanese fashion at this moment.” The year was 1983, before Japanese fashion was a big thing internationally.

I’d never done a book before. Fortunately, a Japanese publisher was interested in doing it. It was a very pleasurable experience. It worked, and because it was successful, I continued making books. But at a certain point, when it got to book number six or seven, with Noise Reduction…. I was a meditator, and I wanted to do this simple, abstract book about meditation. But the experience with the publisher was unpleasant. They didn’t like my cover, and contractually, I had to use a cover that they wanted me to. I designed the book, but they printed it and trimmed it at a different size, so the way in which I had designed it was bastardized. That’s what led to the realization I was talking about before, that publishing had changed, and it’s why I ended up doing How to Take a Japanese Bath.

It seems a little ironic that a book called Noise Reduction ended up being a noisy affair to produce.

Yeah, I guess that’s true.

I also wanted to bring up your book Gardens of Gravel and Sand, from 2000, which is this photo essay on Japanese rock gardens. I was surprised … or, I guess, thought it would’ve been funny if you’d titled it Dry. What led to this particular exploration? Was this just yet another immersion of yours into Japanese culture?

That’s interesting what you just said—they are dry gardens.

Yes, in answer to your question, it was another immersion into Japanese culture. I think that kitsch Japanese culture, except for in one book I did, 283 Useful Ideas From Japan, I wasn’t interested in. I had enough of kitsch. I was interested in the sophisticated and refined aspects of Japanese culture. I think there is an inner craving and need for something deeper in culture than I had found growing up in Los Angeles.

When I was living in Tokyo, I decided to go to Kyoto on an extended weekend trip and visit some of the Zen temples and Shinto shrines. I brought a camera, and I was struck by the intelligence of these gardens, these so-called “rock gardens.” I had another epiphany that somehow the intelligence of the entire culture was somehow distilled in these rock gardens. It made me look at the gardens a lot closer.

After thinking about it for a couple of months, I decided I wanted to go back to Kyoto with a much better camera, and really record visually these gardens in a way that addressed the intellectual and sensual appeal they had to me. My take on it was a little different than the traditional takes on these gardens. The symbolism of the rocks or the formal composition was not so meaningful to me. It was just more the fact that these gardens are constantly being remade every time. Every time they’re re-raked, they’re remade. It’s information that is constantly renewed.

It was quite an amazing experience, actually, spending three weeks in Kyoto. I stayed at a very modest hotel, and I walked to the temples along the Kamo River every day. It was a very beautiful, meditative experience for me.

One day, when I went to visit one of the most important gardens for the Japanese and for the Zen tradition—because it was a temple that was very dear to Sen no Rikyū, who is like the Michelangelo and Leonardo combined of Japanese culture (it was the temple that he used to go to)—I took pictures of the priest raking it early in the morning, before everybody got there. I had an appointment. I had special permission to do this. Afterwards, the priest asked me to rake the garden, and he gave me the special sandals. He gave me the rake, and my impulse was to say, “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want the responsibility of making this garden.” But there I was, doing it. It was quite a moving experience to inject myself in the history of this temple. Somehow, at that moment, I became part of Japanese history in a weird way that is meaningless to anybody but me.

So yeah, that book was very meaningful to me personally, more so than most of my books.

The cover of “Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” (1994) by Leonard Koren. (Courtesy Imperfect Publishing)
The cover of “Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” (1994) by Leonard Koren. (Courtesy Imperfect Publishing)

The final book I wanted to bring up is Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, which next year will turn 30. To me, it’s a late–twentieth century version of what Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was to the 1930s or what Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea was in the early 1900s. How do you think about this trajectory of Wabi-Sabi now, reflecting on it and thinking back?

I don’t remember exactly when I read Tanizaki. I never thought of In Praise of Shadows as being Wabi-Sabi–like, but I guess it is. I think I was struck, when I read Tanizaki, by his cultural chauvinism. It was difficult for me to get beyond it. Whereas Okakura and The Book of Tea had a different mindset. He was a very open and wide person. He never explicitly used the words wabi or sabi. But I think his poetic rendering of Japanese culture in book form was definitely an inspiration for me.

I didn’t set out to make a book about wabi-sabi. Not at all. And I’m not a writer. I don’t consider myself a writer. I don’t consider myself a bookmaker or anything like that. Until recently, I didn’t know exactly what I was. I would say I’m a creator. I’m interested in exploring things that I’m curious about and trying to figure out what it is that makes them curious to me.

At the time I started Wabi-Sabi, I’d been in Japan, on and off, half of every year for twelve or thirteen years. I wanted to understand the bedrock essence of Japanese culture. What was it, actually, that was moving me the most about what I was perceiving in Japan? There are a lot of words about sophisticated and refined Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, but none of them really encapsulated it all for me.

So I proceeded intuitively by taking my camera out and just going on the streets and photographing things that caught my interest. I realized I ended up taking lots of pictures of leaves in a state of decay. I knew the essence of what this thing I was interested in, but what was it, and what is the philosophical, aesthetic structure of it? Then I remembered when, immediately after stopping WET, I studied the Japanese tea ceremony formally a little bit in L.A. and in San Francisco. There was this word wabi that kept coming up in it. The tea ceremony is very traditional and conservative and formulaic, but I got a lot out of it nevertheless. Those things—tradition, formula—were things that I rebelled against most of my life. Yet with the tea ceremony, I succumbed to them.

Looking through an old diary I kept when I was practicing tea, one thing led to another, then to another and another. And then I remember Japanese friends would sometimes say casually that something was wabi-sabi–like. Wabi-sabi was not in any Japanese dictionary. There’s the word “wabi,” and there’s the word sabi.” I decided to hobble together all these different notions and understandings that I had of what this was, and put it together in a book form. There was no wabi-sabi. Nobody talked about wabi-sabi in the West. There were no books written about it. There was nothing. Niente.

So I did the book. I didn’t think anybody would care about it. The book ended up having immediate appeal in the United States for some reason. I didn’t know why. It really worked in the marketplace. What I learned is that the way culture works is, if you have a good idea, other people will take your idea and make something else out of it. Now there are probably thirty books with wabi-sabi in the title, some quite absurd to me. At first, I was a little surprised that people could do this, because my way of creation is always, “If somebody else has done it, you don’t want to go there. You want to find your own path.” So the fact that there are all these people who don’t create in that way, who are more derivative, that was interesting. Once I became comfortable with that, I realized, Well, if you make something that’s of great cultural interest, it will penetrate the culture in ways you could never imagine and that are way beyond your control.

Yeah, wabi-sabi has become this interior design phenomenon—the Axel Vervoordt effect.

It’s funny you mention Axel. He and I became friends after I published WET, and he invited me to his castle in Belgium. My family and I went, and we spent three days talking. At the time, I think he wanted me to write his book that he subsequently did later on about wabi [Wabi Inspirations]. I explained to him why I couldn’t and why his notion of things and mine differed. I think he’s wonderful at what he does, but he’s much more commercial-minded than I am. I wanted to keep things quite pure.