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Portland modernist master John Yeon gets due in new retrospective

The native Portlandia defined the region’s modernist aesthetic

Aubrey Watzek House, Portland, Oregon, 1937.
Photo by Jeremy Bittermann courtesy of Portland Art Museum

A retrospective of the work of late modernist architect John Yeon is currently on exhibit at the Portland Art Museum.

Quest for Beauty: The architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon” showcases the buildings and art collections of the native Portlandian, whose work defined much of the region’s architecture and beyond, greatly influencing what came to be known as the Northwest regional style of modernism.

The exhibition highlights some of his best-known projects, which include the historic Watzek House (1937), the Portland Visitors Information Center (completed in 1949, it was Yeon’s only major non-residential commission), and the Shaw House (1950)—all of which combine modernist principles with East Asian influences.

Interior shot of Aubrey Watzek House.
Photo by Jeremy Bittermann

Born in 1910, Yeon was also known as a planner, conservationist, historic preservationist, and an urban activist who fought to preserve some of the Northwest’s most important vistas including the Columbia River Gorge, the Oregon Coast, and Olympic National Park.

The Portland Visitors Information Center, 1948.
Photo: Roger Sturtevant Collection, Oakland Museum of California
Interior shot of the Portland Visitors Information Center.
Roger Sturtevant Collection, Oakland Museum of California

And as an avid collector of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and European art, furniture, and decorative objects, Yeon incorporated all of these influences into his work.

“Quest for Beauty,” on view through September 3, presents Yeon’s original models and drawings alongside photographs by midcentury architectural photographers and a selection of Yeon’s art collection to showcase, according to a press release, “a restless eye and mind that could absorb the lessons of centuries of Asian and European art while developing an original vision for the Pacific Northwest.