Herb Kornfeld Painted Downtown L.A. and Watts in 1960s California Modernism

The artist’s work is on display at the FM Fine Art Gallery through November 18

The California coast has been immortalized in art many times. But L.A. locals know that SoCal’s real beauty—especially in the city—is found in the weird, the dark, the unexpected corners of neighborhoods that define who we are as a community.

Painter Herb Kornfeld, a mid-century California modernist, knew that too. Living in the heart of Hollywood, he scoured L.A. for inspiration, finding bursts of color in unexpected places. His renderings of the Watts Towers bleed canary yellow and sapphire blue. His images of the Angel’s Flight Railway in downtown are flooded with mandarin orange. And a painting of an old house in Lincoln Heights finds peaceful, middle-America pinks in the sunset.

Kornfeld got his start as a commercial artist, drawing some of the first renditions of Donald Duck for Disney. But that got old; raised in Montana, he craved open space and striking country scenery for inspiration. Plus, says his widow Sam Kornfeld, at a certain point, her husband told her that, “There’s more to life than the effing duck.”

“The Wooden Derick," Hawthorne, Calif., 1960
“The Wooden Derick,” Hawthorne, Calif., 1960

The couple began traveling the world, staying in cities for months at a time as Kornfeld worked on collections depicting the area. They always returned to their home in Hollywood, which garnered a reputation as a launching pad for musicians: At various points in time, their guest house was rented by a young KD Lang and a pre-fame Melissa Etheridge.

He was inspired by the times, adds Sam. “In the 1960s, he was always right there in the moment,” she says. “He felt that a lot of it would not remain.”

Kornfeld’s paintings came to help define the California modernist movement, as graphic landscapes with surreal colors and electric interpretations of everyday scenery. Towards the end of his life, Kornfeld became interested in Northern California, painting out the fields along the 5 Freeway and parts of the Bay Area.

“He painted,” says Sam, “until two and a half weeks before he died.”

Herb Kornfeld’s California work will be on exhibit at the FM Fine Art Gallery in West Hollywood from November 4 – November 18. 834 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039