Although many architects think of themselves as artists, John Yeon did not; he viewed himself as a landscape painter who could see the inner beauty of a site. Yeon (1910-1994) worked to bring out the beauty of a location rather than to create beauty within the space.
“He was really adept at manipulating,” said Randy Gragg, curator of Portland Art Museum’s new exhibit, ‘Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes and Collections of John Yeon.’ “He didn’t see conservation as habitat preservation only; he saw it as composing beauty. He was perfectly fine manipulating the landscape to make a more beautiful view.”
The Portland Art Museum’s exhibit on Portland native Yeon will feature photos of Yeon’s architecture, selected pieces from his extensive art collection and a large-scale model of Yeon’s famed Watzek House. Gragg said the exhibit is designed to showcase Yeon as a person, rather than just as an architect.
“Yeon was involved in three spheres of influence,” Gragg said. “He was a prominent architect and he was an extremely prominent conservation voice as he helped preserve some important landscapes in Oregon. He was also a very studied art collector, so the goal of the exhibition was to showcase these three somewhat overlapping spheres of thinking and of influence.”
Yeon’s architectural style was revolutionary for his time. He was mostly self-taught, spending just a semester at Stanford University before returning to his hometown of Portland. Despite his lack of formal training, Yeon rocketed to stardom in his field. Completed in 1937, Yeon designed The Watzek House — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — when he was just 26 years old.
While art and architecture are often linked together as crafts, the methods for displaying art and architecture are quite different. For example, Yeon’s simplistic beauty and attention to detail can only be represented in photos, models and drawings in a gallery-type setting. This can pose some challenges for the curator.
“It is really hard to bring architecture to life because most people don’t know how to read architectural drawings,” Gragg said.
As to what value this exhibit might provide for a student, Gragg said inspiration can be found in the complexity and depth to Yeon’s thinking.