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. 

When John met Gretchen …

First of all, congratulations on your soon-to be-opened gallery. John, I’ll begin with you: In a recent Wall Street Journal article, you were asked why you’re moving South of Market. You said, “I walked into Grant Avenue after 45 years and said, ‘I’m tired of this. I want to be energized.’” So, are you energized? John Berggruen: I wasn’t that tired. I was a little tired of the experience of being on Grant Avenue. Also just the idea of being in a new environment. We have a young, bright and very committed staff and an interesting program planned for the future. And you cannot underestimate the importance of SFMOMA, which is across the street. That’s a wonderful incentive to want to move to this neighborhood.

Your father, the renowned art dealer Heinz Berggruen, cautioned you against opening a gallery in San Francisco. Why was he so pessimistic?

John: First of all, he had lived in San Francisco from the late ’30s, early -’40s and married my mother. That was not a success. That was a rather unfortunate situation. He was here from Germany as a German refugee and, eventually, became an American citizen and was drafted into the United States Army. He worked at SFMOMA as one of their first curators, if not the first curator. He also worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, which is a local newspaper that still exists. … He really had a lot of contempt for San Francisco in terms of going forward with his career as an art dealer and his experience with collectors and all that.

Gretchen Berggruen: Well, I don’t think that’s quite true. … Not that it was a happy time for him, but there was a cultural life here. People forget that there were so many people coming out of Europe. Writers, photographers, musicians. All the universities in the Bay Area were hiring those people, and it was a very rich time.

John: He felt that San Francisco as an art community was somewhat of a backwater in regard to what he was doing in his business as an art dealer in Paris.

Gretchen: Well, compared to what he was doing in Paris...

John: He felt I had very little experience. My academic training, or my education, was not about art history but political science so it didn’t mean as much. In any case, he felt maybe I was a little young. Maybe naïve.

Gretchen: You were young.

John: My father, he was always very hands-off. He didn’t say, “I know you’ll do well. I’m going to work with you.” Right before we opened the gallery on Grant, I asked him if he would lend me some money—and he ended up lending me $5,000, which was payable within the year. I paid him, I think, 11 months later. It was a good learning curve for me.

Thank God Gretchen came along. Well, you two have been very successful in a very difficult business. What do you attribute your success to, both personally and professionally?

Gretchen: Professionally, the experience of not being afraid of hard work. We were always open six days a week when all the other galleries were only open five. Instead of opening at 10:30 or 11, we opened at 9:30. It sounds silly but it’s true— that really might have made a difference. I have a list of clients who stopped by the gallery early Monday morning on their way out of town or on the way to the airport. They would look in the gallery guide and we were the only gallery open. … John told the story about someone tapping on the window and coming in one Monday morning, and buying a wonderful Henry Moore sculpture.

Another thing is John and I are a good balance—one against the other—in that John is a little more impulsive. When he sees a work of art, for instance, he’ll be the one very often to say, “I don’t care. I really like it. I’m going to buy it.” I’ll say, “No, wait a minute.” I’ll be trying to think, well, who would we offer this to or how much is that? I actually tend to overthink things a little bit. Between my cautionary voice and John’s impulsiveness, it has worked out in a way that most people probably wouldn’t have predicted— including his father.

Last May, Christie’s had its first billion dollar week. A Mark Rothko sold for $82 million. A Lucien Freud and an Andy Warhol both went for $56 million. What’s your reaction to these prices?

John: Not sure it’s always a good thing, because you limit your market. A lot of those paintings, those prices, are certainly inaccessible. Gretchen: Yes, but it could be a good thing too. It’s always a double-edged sword. Those who have been collecting with us in a very methodical way, in a long-term way, look at us with tremendous gratitude. Rarely is it the case that someone comes back to us and they’ve been embarrassed and say, “Boy, I really shouldn’t have bought this.” A critic here used to always take a dig at the expense of art. I would think, Well, yeah, but look how many artists are married, who are supporting children. Supporting children in college, supporting buying a home, having a real life. People forget that that wasn’t a given for everybody. That’s the other role the dealer plays. We support those people.

Janet: You’re obviously both collectors as well. Do you share similar taste? John: No. My taste is much more evolved.

Gretchen: Of course. John: We don’t share every artist in terms of agreement or enthusiasm—but mostly yes. We have works by [Wayne] Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn in our house.

Gretchen: I’ve been trying to keep myself fresh by pushing myself these last few years, particularly, to be looking at more emerging artists. Not just out of college—not that kind of emerging— but with some track record. … There are artists that I will buy something of and John will go, “Why did you do that?”

John: Where are you going to put it, Gretchen?

Gretchen: Well, that’s the issue.

Janet: Space. Gretchen: I don’t want another building or apartment or house to take care of. I just want more walls.

Janet: What makes your marriage work?

Gretchen: I’m a saint.

John: That’s true. More people say, “John, you’re so lucky.” And then they say, “Gretchen, you poor thing.”

Gretchen: Why does it work? I don’t know. I think we had a good working relationship for many years before we were married. We had unnamed roles that I would work with the difficult people and he would work with the easy-peasy people.

John: Also, we have a lot of fun together.

Gretchen: We do have a lot of fun. John: We like to travel together. We like to eat dinner together.

Gretchen: Every night.

John: We have three great kids—children who are not children anymore. We have offices on separate floors.

Gretchen: Mandatory. We always have. I think it works, though, because we have a good sense of humor.

John: That’s important. Gretchen. We get grumpy with each other. We call ourselves The Bickersons.