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Alumni & Friends

From Politics to Paintings


A photograph of John Berggruen, Owner, John Berggruen GalleryJohn Berggruen, Owner, John Berggruen Gallery.

THE ESTEEMED San Francisco art dealer John Berggruen (B.A., '67) wasn't particularly interested in art when he attended SF State. He was deep into politics. President of the campus chapter of Young Democrats and a member of the student legislature, Berggruen worked on the re-election campaigns of President Lyndon Johnson and Governor Pat Brown while studying political science.

"I had no interest in art, other than I took a couple of general survey courses at State, which I enjoyed," says Berggruen, whose Grant Ave. gallery has showcased the work of modern and contemporary artists -- among them such prominent figures as Alexander Calder, Wayne Thiebaud and Frank Stella -- since 1970. The gallery director is his wife, Gretchen, who graduated from SF State with an English degree in 1968.

Three years earlier, Berggruen was inspired to join the Civil Rights activists marching from Selma, Ala. to the state capital of Montgomery. After watching the first march on the evening news -- "I couldn't believe what they were doing to these African Americans," he recalls -- Berggruen drove to campus the next morning in his mother's Oldsmobile. That afternoon, he and some like-minded students he'd never met before piled into the Olds and drove off to Selma to support the movement.

"San Francisco State was a very active place politically," says Berggruen, and his involvement gave him the organizational skills he would later use in the art world.

After graduation, Berggruen headed off to Paris to get to know his father better. Heinz Berggruen was a famous European art dealer and collector who had worked as an art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for a spell and married John's mother, Lillian Zellerbach, scion of the prominent San Francisco family. John was a baby when they divorced.

Spending time at his father's Left Bank gallery, Berggruen fell in love with art. After working in galleries in London and New York, he came home to San Francisco and opened the John Berggruen Gallery. It became one of the city's premier galleries. Berggruen developed relationships with Claes Oldenburg, Helen Frankenthaler and Richard Diebenkorn, and sought out others whose work spoke to him.

"I've made friendships with wonderful artists and wonderful clients," says Berggruen, whose winter exhibition of California artists included the work of Professor Emeritus Robert Bechtle. In April, the gallery showed a survey of 1960s Frankenthaler paintings that "have never been seen in a group in this part of the world." In May, new paintings by Christopher Brown go on view.

"I enjoy seeing artists' careers develop and unfold," says Berggruen. Satisfaction also comes from organizing exhibitions and acquiring new artwork. "I like the hunt," he says, "making that decision to buy a piece of art and living with it, enjoying it and sharing it."


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