Hovering above Universal City in architect John Lautner’s flying saucer-shaped 1960 Chemosphere house, German publisher Benedikt Taschen shoos away a visitor’s hand before it can sully the cover of Exquisite Mayhem. A needless precaution, it seems, given the just released photography book’s dual themes of pro wrestling and sadomasochism. If Exquisite Mayhem’s fine binding, tasteful layout, and fine-stock paper resemble books on rain forest birds, modern architecture, and painters of centuries past, it is no accident. Since launching his publishing company in 1981, Taschen has, at 40, won a reputation two parts risqué and one part Rizzoli.
From his offices in Cologne, Germany, he has churned out works on Picasso and male nudes and Tuscan interior design. But since he made L.A. his second home three years ago, the Chemosphere has served as a more productive perch for his architectural, pop cultural, and erotic obsessions. Taschen has applied his curatorial zeal to L.A.’s masterworks of the 20th century with a backbreaking work on Richard Neutra’s houses, several volumes from Julius Shulman’s photo archives, and a $150 homage to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. He throws book parties at the Chemosphere, attends black-tie events with Shulman, and dines out with Wilder and Helmut Newton at Mr Chow. Taschen may sense a certain kinship with Wilder, the bemused Austrian emigre who climbed to the city’s heights while probing its depths. Through artist friends Mike Kelley and Cameron Jamie, the publisher has discovered not only Theo Ehret, the photographer behind Exquisite Mayhem, but profited from the foot-fetish oeuvre of photographer Elmer Bettis, good for a two-volume set, and the Polynesian fixations of Sven Kirsten, compiled in The Book of Tiki.
“Wait a minute,” Taschen exclaims. “Theo has to touch it first. That’s why he’s here!” At that moment Ehret, whose work from the ’60s and ’70s graces the book’s 488 pages, spills out of the Chemosphere’s ridge-climbing trolley.
As the morning’s self-assured hosts, Taschen and his copublisher-wife Angelika speed the 81-year-old photographer to an Eames chair. Before an elliptical Florence Knoll table that bears the first bound copy of his 15-pound tome, Ehret is indeed the first to touch it. Heavy-lidded, with a small, mobile mouth that would look mournful if he weren’t smiling so often, Taschen dresses in Levi’s, frog-skin shoes, and a shimmering egg yellow shirt buttoned open to reveal a swingers gold medallion. Angelika, too, is wearing blue jeans, only they’ve been hacked apart and reassembled to serve as her jacket.
“Theo, I have to tell you,” Taschen confides as Ehret leisurely flips through endless black and whites of wrestlers bloodying themselves and women with bared teeth and bare breasts twisting the legs and pulling the hair of other grimacing women. “It’s Angelika’s favorite book now.”
“Yeah,” Angelika says, “it’s true.”
Ehret’s craggy face betrays little emotion as he pores over Exquisite Mayhem, beholding once again the antics of Giant Baba, George “Crybaby” Cannon, and Natacha the Hatchet Lady at downtown’s Olympic Auditorium. Like the Taschens, Ehret is from Germany. But the many years he spent ringside—and at nudie shoots for publications like Real Detective magazine—have infused his speech with the cadences of a Damon Runyon character. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I was never much for wrestling, boxing. Whatever is in that book never interested me whatsoever. I just put it on film. Because at the time it was a job, see? Work was hard to get, and you had to live.”
It’s the kind of semiotic irony that would have pleased French philosopher Roland Barthes, whose 1955 essay on the joys of wrestling is reprinted as the book’s preface. Certainly, it delights Ehret’s publisher. “Maybe, Theo, we have to quote you on the cover,” Taschen says. “‘I never cared about wrestling.’”
“Wrestling magazines, boxing magazines, knitting magazines,” Ehret goes over his resume. “You name it.”
“Knitting,” Taschen says with a laugh, “was bad business.”
“A dollar a frame,” Ehret retorts.
Taschen stops their page-flipping to marvel at Ehret’s compositional sense. “I like this setting here, the man with the golden hat,” he says, nodding toward a Dutch-master reproduction in a cheap frame that hangs beside the shoulder of a naked woman who has seized the ankles of her rival.
“I got that thing someplace,” Ehret says of the painting. “I don’t know. I had to change around all the time to keep going.” Indeed, women in his other photographs cavort alongside a sketch of a medieval village, or a watercolor of the Golden Gate bridge. As for this particular work, Taschen the art historian cautions against its misidentification as a Rembrandt. “They found out five years ago it’s not by Rembrandt,” he says. “It was seen as the most famous Rembrandt painting ever, but it’s not by him.” The non-Rembrandt reappears on page 198, in one of Ehret’s rare man-and-woman studies. A lady in a too-small bra is cupping her mate’s head and tugging him by his blow-dried mane, but his eyes are transfixed so intently on the Dutchman in the golden hat that he seems insufficiently tortured.
“That’s her boyfriend,” Ehret says. “She was good, she was really good by herself.” As for this photograph, alas, he says, “It didn’t work out with them together.”
“Yeah,” Taschen says, “he was too fascinated by your art collection.” The publisher gleans a larger lesson about erotic soft-core wrestling. “Only homosexual works,” he says. “Girl and girl or man and man, but not boy, girl.”
Taschen is mulling over a celebration at the Chemosphere for Exquisite Mayhem’s publication, to be attended by some of the long-retired wrestlers who appear in the book. Ehret turns to a page showing an incomprehensibly buffed-up Billy Graham. “He was nothing but steroids from head to toe,” he says. “You should see him now. He’s just a stick.”
“So,” Taschen makes the executive decision. “We don’t invite him to the party.”