BERLIN — With a fashion label, a magazine and a roster of up-and-coming artists who regularly pick up awards, prestigious commissions and solo museum exhibitions, Johann König has a reputation as one of Germany’s most influential young art dealers. His customers include the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York. On Nov. 9 he will open a gallery in Tokyo, adding a new outpost to an empire that already includes spaces in Berlin and London.
But some of the art Mr. König shows, he can’t actually see.
A childhood accident left Mr. König partially blind — a disability that might seem an insurmountable barrier to his chosen career. But being visually impaired might even help him distinguish profound and enduring works from art that is superficial and ephemeral, he says.
In a recent interview in Berlin, Mr. König, 38, flicked through his phone to a photo of a concrete block in the upscale Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, where the third König Galerie will open. The building, which his gallery will share with the luxury clothing brand MCM, is slated for demolition, Mr. König explained.
It sounds unpromising, but unorthodox settings are a trademark for Mr. König. His London gallery is in an underground garage. The Berlin flagship, in a district flattened by World War II bombs, opened in 2015 in a converted Brutalist church where Mr. König also lives with his family.
The first exhibition in Tokyo, whose opening coincides with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, will showcase new works by Jürgen Teller, the fashion and fine art photographer. Mr. König said the new gallery’s focus would be on German-speaking artists.
“We have this building for a good year,” Mr. König says, holding up his phone. “Then it will be pulled down. Depending on how it works out, we’ll look for a new place. For us it’s not just about selling from exhibitions, it’s more about branding. I hope we sell things there, but it’s not terrible if we don’t.”
Mr. König’s agile phone handling recalls an anecdote in “The Blind Art Dealer,” his autobiography, written with Daniel Schreiber, published in German in June. The book describes how Mr. König photographs the menu at important business dinners with his phone so he can zoom in to read it. “Then I advise the collectors around me, who are too vain to put on their reading glasses, about what dishes are on offer,” he wrote.
The memoir was a coming-out of sorts: until then Mr. König, 38, had tried to hide his disability. “The book was a risk,” he said. “Some collectors advised me against it.”
It describes how, at around age 12, Mr. König was playing in his bedroom with gunpowder from the cartridges of a starting pistol for sports events, which caused an explosion. It left him able to discern only strong colors, light and dark, and blurry shapes.
A successful cornea transplant in 2009 partially restored his vision, but 10 years later, his body is rejecting that part of the eye and he is awaiting another operation. In the meantime, his eyesight is “very poor,” he said.
“The book has really helped me to be more open about it,” Mr. König said. “It’s a bit sad that you need to be in a position of strength to talk about your weaknesses. It would have been nicer if I could have been frank about it from the beginning.”
Mr. König said that before he works with an artist, he liked to talk with them at length about the concepts behind their works. “I don’t choose artworks, I choose artists,” he said.
His iPhone is a constant companion, allowing him to magnify details he cannot see with the naked eye. He has exhibited works whose details he can’t fully appreciate because the ideas behind them appealed, he said — for instance, the canvases of Johannes Wohnseifer, which appear monochrome unless viewed in a specific light. (One of these revealed the words “What you can’t see, can hurt you,” a sentence Mr. König might identify with.)
Mr. König was born into art world aristocracy. His father, Kasper, is one of Germany’s best-known curators and a former director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. His mother, Edda, an illustrator, was married to Wim Wenders before she married Kasper (Gerhard Richter was best man). His uncle, Walther, founded an art publishing house and a major chain of bookstores. As children, Johann and his brother Leo — now a successful art dealer in New York — played soccer between an Andy Warhol “Brillo Box,” a bronze by Lucio Fontana and a sofa by Franz West.
After the accident, he attended a school for visually impaired children in Marburg, near Frankfurt, an institution he grew to love. Art was on the curriculum, with an emphasis on conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. His teacher, Mr. König wrote in his book, believed that “people who can see are just as blind to it as the blind.”
This resonated with the teenage Mr. König, and he came to the view that art transcends the visual. “The pictures in the mind are just as important as the pictures on the wall; perhaps more important,” he said.
He spent his late teenage years was spent immersed in Frankfurt’s art scene and opened his first gallery in Berlin at the age of 21. His first exhibition was an unmitigated flop, money was scarce and his family thought he would fail. But Mr. König persisted.
A major breakthrough came in 2002 at the Art Forum fair in Berlin, when Mr. König’s gallery exhibited a large, battery-driven ball by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein. Set in motion by sensors, it smashed wildly around Mr. König’s Berlin gallery, damaging the paint work but wowing the crowds, who lined up on the street for a look. All three editions of the ball sold — including one to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Mr. König is aware of the head start his upbringing and network gave him in an increasingly cutthroat market, he said. But he felt that his own resilience — a result, partly, of his accident — had been key to his success, he added.
It was upsetting, Mr. König said, when a 2005 profile of his brother Leo in The New Yorker included the line: “Some people begrudge him his connections, and point out that making it in the art world is so easy for a König that even Leo’s younger half brother Johann has a gallery, despite being almost blind.”
“That really hurt,” Mr. König said, adding that he thinks being partially blind may even have made him a better gallerist. “Visual aspects can often be very deceptive,” he said. “People take everything on board visually first, and make a lot of judgments; if you don’t have that, you have to find other ways.”
Jose Dávila, a Mexican artist whose show of precariously balanced stone sculptures runs at Mr. König’s Berlin gallery through Dec. 12, said that Mr. König “doesn’t think like a dealer.”
“That’s very refreshing for artists. If I say ‘I need to ship five tons of stones to Europe,’ he just says, ‘Fine,’” Mr. Dávila said. “He is not thinking about whether he can sell, he just wants to make the best show he can.”
Although Mr. König’s company is expanding and now has a staff of 40, he is trying to reduce the number of art fairs the gallery attends, he said. In the past, it has exhibited at as many as 18 a year, Mr. König added.
“Whether a convention center is in Hong Kong, Miami, or Chicago, it is always the same thing,” he said, adding that he hoped the Tokyo gallery will become a hub from which he could sell directly across the Asia Pacific region, to China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Korea.
In 2020, he plans exhibitions featuring the Berlin-based artists Norbert Bisky, Alicja Kwade, Martin Eder and Anselm Reyle in the new space. “We want to stress our identity and origins,” Mr. König said. “We think that will work well, because there is a certain fascination for Germany in Japan.”
His next expansion plan after Tokyo is closer to home: Mr. König is considering building a sculpture park in nature somewhere near to Berlin, he said, before adding, “But one thing at a time.”
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