“He had a passionate love of Klee and wanted Klee’s work to be seen by a broader audience,” John says of his father. “He never knew him, because Klee died in 1940 and my father was living in the United States then, but he began collecting Klee, and he was a dealer of Klee, and he amassed a pretty interesting collection.” Before his gift to the Met, Berggruen had also given a group of some 12 works by Klee to the Centre Pompidou
, and he would leave a final, third collection of over 60 works at the Berggruen Museum in Berlin.
Now 46 years into running his own gallery, John undeniably followed in his father’s footsteps, as a dealer and a collector. Despite the limited time he spent with his father during his youth (his parents divorced in 1945), the two forged a relationship in Paris in the ’60s, after John graduated from college. There, surrounded by his father’s infectious passion for Klee, his own interest in the Modern master—and the practice of collecting an artist in-depth—was piqued. “The dining room was hung with a group of Klees,” he recalls. “At this point in time, now that I’ve been doing this for 46 years, I realize that I’m sort of following, in a osmotic way, my father’s tradition,” John admits. “I’ve collected works by
in some degree of depth, nothing like what my father did in terms of numbers, but we do have quite few works.”
When John decided to open his first gallery, in 1970, his father wasn’t thrilled. “I was 27 when I opened a little gallery here in San Francisco, and he felt that I really didn’t have the experience,” he explains. (At 22, he had started working at a galleries in London and New York.) “Perhaps I didn’t have the maturity or the intuitive wisdom or the art history background—and San Francisco, to my father, was perhaps the end of the world.”
Despite his reservations about the gallery, John’s father supported him through loaning him lithographs to sell at the gallery. “I would pay him back for the works I sold, of course, and made a little bit of a profit, maybe 20%, and that was very helpful for getting me started,” he says. Success did not come quickly, but after a few years, a strong work ethic and a clear mission served John well. “It was a matter of diligence and perseverance, and wanting to bring a certain level of art to San Francisco.”