For a mild-mannered, quiet and respectable mother of two, Adele Cohen never seemed like the kind of artist whose work would focus on the gloomiest elements of human nature and endeavor.
"All of her work is really dark, it's almost all inspired by death on some level, but she was always a really pleasant person," said Burchfield-Penney Art Center curator Scott Propeack, as he worked to prepare a series of sculptures resembling charred bodies.
Those sculptures, and dozens of other paintings and works, are part of the Burchfield-Penney's "Beauty Within the Dark," an exhibition featuring the work of Cohen, who died in 2002.
The exhibition is also a celebration of last year's release of the 149-page book "Adele Cohen: A Life in Art," published by the Burchfield-Penney.
The works span a period of more than 40 years, during which Cohen's artistic evolution took countless unexpected turns, from paintings mimicking the abstract expressionist and monochromatic style of Franz Kline to wheel-shaped wooden sculptures crawling with sinewy organic spindles.
Artist Ben Perrone -- whose own paintings are currently on view at the Burchfield-Penney -- was Cohen's longtime companion and collaborator. But when Perrone's art teacher took him to see some early works by Cohen in the '60s, he wasn't exactly enthused.
"He asked my reaction, and I thought that they were terrible," Perrone said, "because she was so much further ahead in the art world than I was, in terms of maturity. She was already a mature artist when I was young and immature."
Once the green of Perrone's envy faded a few shades, he came to respect her work, and along with Cohen started the Zuni Gallery, which presented works from Buffalo artists such as Lawrence Calcagno and Martha Visser't Hooft. Perrone, Cohen and their cohorts were all interested in making their work widely known outside of Western New York. This led to frequent trips to New York City, when Cohen and her fellow artists would pile into a bakery truck (her husband, Henry Cohen, worked in the family bakery) and try to infuse their work into the New York City scene.
"We usually broke down on the way," Perrone said.
Cohen's career contained several distinct phases and media, most related by an attachment to the idea of decay and the strange organic forms that come between death and decomposition. Her early paintings, like "Shrike" from 1958, drew inspiration from Asian calligraphic brush strokes and the work of the first abstract expressionists, Propeack said.
"Definitely not groundbreaking, but it was from this that she sort of leapt off and started to create an identity for herself," Propeack said.
That leap set her down in a series of earthy oil collages and Asian-inspired screens that resemble otherworldly landscapes with quasi-organic forms starting to emerge more and more as Cohen developed. Her most acclaimed work in this exhibit is called "Requiem for WW2," which she painted in 1964, drawing inspiration from her friends who had fought in that war and from Berlioz's "Requiem."
In the late '60s and '70s, Cohen turned away from painting and toward sculpture, which is where some of the more disturbing images appear. A series called "Wheel Sculptures," which Cohen completed in 1969 as a response to the Vietnam War, look like macabre coffee tables, inside of which sit stretched conglomerations of black fibrous material that evoke the creepy idea of a botched mummification.
Some of Cohen's few colorful paintings emerged in the mid-1980s with a series based on the 10 plagues from the Bible, and the show extends to works created in the '90s around Cohen's trip to the Yaddo artist's retreat in Saratoga Springs.
But after all the influences -- World War II, Vietnam, the death of her husband in 1975 -- artists say there's still something elusive about Cohen, whose private and outwardly conventional nature hid secrets that only seemed to emerge in her work.
In the end, Perrone said, "You only have yourself to paint."
WHAT:"Beauty Within the Dark: Adele Cohen"
WHEN: Opens with reception from 5:30 to 7:30 tonight; exhibit runs through Aug. 2
WHERE: Burchfield-Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
INFO: 878-6011 or www.burchfield-penney.org