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The Berggruen Gallery over the years

By Heather Wood Rudulph

John Berggruen was only 27 years old when he opened his namesake gallery on Grant Avenue in 1970. It was a move many leaders in the global arts community—including his father, famed German arts dealer and patron Heinz Berggruen—thought risky. By the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco had become an epicenter for counterculture, but it hadn’t yet built a reputation for fine art. Since the gallery’s opening, the city has gone through multiple cultural evolutions—from the rise of jazz fusion and protest rock in the 1970s to the tech boom of the 1990s. All the while, Berggruen has been slowly building one of the most prominent art dealerships in the world.

It’s a legacy Berggruen had to build from scratch, despite the fact that his father was one of the most influential figures in the art world. Over the course of his 70-year career, the elder Berggruen worked his way up from assistant to the director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to having an art collection valued at more than $450 million in 2001. In 1996, he had a museum named for him in his native Berlin. It would have been easy for Heinz Berggruen to give his son a huge jump-start on his gallery, but instead, he insisted that he work for his own reputation, just as he had himself.

Berggruen the Younger didn’t disappoint. Over 47 years, Berggruen has had more than 700 shows at his gallery featuring some of the world’s most iconic artists—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Willem de Kooning—as well as contemporary artists Berggruen discovered early in their careers—Wayne Thiebaud, Edward Ruscha and David Bates.

With a new location in the DoReMi Arts District, directly across the street from the refurbished SFMOMA, The John Berggruen Gallery has solidified its place in the center of the Bay Area’s artistic renaissance. The inaugural exhibit in the new space, “The Human Form” (January 13–March 4), celebrates Berggruen’s nearly five decades collecting and selling art. Here, we look back on some of his most memorable moments:

Like a first love, a collector’s initial acquisition is seared into memory. For Berggruen, it was Spanish painter Joan Miró’s Equinox, a piece he acquired around 1971. Prior to this purchase, the gallery’s shows featured lithographs Berggruen bought on consignment from his father and colleagues in the art world. “It was the first time I made a commitment of a lot of money—maybe $10,000,” says Berggruen, noting that this purchase kicked off his collecting career.

In the mid-1970s, Berggruen became interested in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Credited as the “mother of American modernism,” O’Keeffe was based in the Southwest but had done very few exhibitions on the West Coast. “I thought only in my wildest dreams could I do a Georgia O’Keeffe show,” Berggruen says. Not only was the artist elusive, but purchasing her work was prohibitive to the young collector at the time. So he took the idea to a group of art collectors who worked with his father and convinced them to invest. Soon he was on the phone with O’Keeffe’s agent arranging the sale of three pieces, including Black Cross with Stars and Blue, shown at the gallery in the fall of 1977.

In 1973 Berggruen visited a then-emerging artist named Edward Ruscha in his Los Angeles studio. Struck by his vivid style, Berggruen offered to represent him. “Ruscha is now internationally known, but at the time we didn’t know how to introduce his work,” Berggruen says. “He said to me, ‘I have an idea,’ and hands me his business card. It said, Edward Ruscha, Young Artist. It was one of my first exhibitions of a living artist on the West Coast.”

That relationship has lasted decades, with Berggruen buying and selling several prominent pieces, such as Juice, which was acquired by San Francisco-based art collectors Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, known in the industry as Hunk and Moo.

Berggruen often formed close relationships with the artists he worked with—from Ruscha and Jasper Johns to Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. By the mid-1980s he had also established lasting relationships with collectors, and earned the respect of the press, which for years incorrectly assumed that he was riding the coattails of his father. But Berggruen didn’t realize his prominence in the art scene until William Lieberman, then curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, visited the gallery in 1983 and purchased several pieces to add to the Met’s collection, including paintings by San Francisco artists Paul Wonner and Elmer Bischoff.

“That completely shocked me,” Berggruen says. “Here was a powerful force in the art world, and I was just this young regional art dealer making sales to one of the most major museums in the world. It was a real feather in my cap.”

Berggruen and his father both had an intimate relationship with Picasso. Heinz was a friend of the famed artist, acquiring 80-plus pieces over his lifetime, many of which have been donated to museums around the world. Berggruen always admired his father’s collection. He tried to buy one particular sketchbook that his father owned many times over the years, but his father refused. It was a collection of 26 erotic drawings that Picasso composed in 1970, two and a half years before his death. Finally, Berggruen’s father agreed, and the drawings were turned into the exhibit “Picasso: The Berggruen Album,” featured at the gallery in the spring of 2004.

Since then, Berggruen has purchased several of his own Picassos, including Le Nu Jaune and The Weeping Woman, which are featured in “The Human Form.” The exhibit draws from some of Berggruen’s most important relationships with artists over the years, serving as a retrospective that celebrates a new beginning.

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