Taos artist Peter Chinni dies

Italian-born sculptor held an international reputation and local museum accolades

By Rick Romancito
Posted 2/6/19

Internationally known modern art sculptor and Taos resident Peter Chinni, 90, has died. Chinni reportedly fell Monday evening (Feb. 4) while practicing the first rehearsal of the Taos Community Chorus for a planned series of performances ...

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Taos artist Peter Chinni dies

Italian-born sculptor held an international reputation and local museum accolades


Internationally known modern art sculptor and Taos resident Peter Chinni, 90, has died. Chinni reportedly suffered a fall Monday evening (Feb. 4) while practicing the first rehearsal of the Taos Community Chorus for a planned series of performances in May. Members of the chorus said he appeared to strike his head on a pew at First Presbyterian Church where the rehearsal was being conducted.

Fellow sculptor and friend T.J Mabrey said, “There was a doctor in the chorus who checked him — and then watched him carefully. At one point he got up and went over to the snack table. Singing and eating. What is more Italian than that! The doctor later called an ambulance when Peter began to feel bad. He was taken to Holy Cross Hospital.”

He later fell into a coma from what his close friend Jules Epstein said was “an intercranial hematoma.”

After hearing the news, his daughter Christine Chinni came up from Austin, Texas. Along with friends, she was with her father when he passed at 8:38 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 5), according to Epstein.

Epstein was also at the rehearsal and was with him until his death. “He was an unstoppable man,” he said. Chinni had suffered from cardiac problems since a heart attack about two years ago, so many of the hospital staff knew him well. Epstein said after he was taken to the hospital on Monday several would stop by to sit with him and sometimes cry.

“Our dear friend Peter,” voice teacher and former TCC director Tina Sandoval said on social media. “He was also an incredible bass-baritone! Peter was a dear soul and devoted artist whom I had the privilege to know, listen to and work with.”

Chinni turned 90 on March 21, 2018, and since his move to Taos in 2004, quickly cemented his place in the community of artists here.

Chinni’s exhibition “Inside/Out” was part of the Harwood Museum’s Winter Exhibition that opened Nov. 3 and just closed Jan. 13. Matthew Thomas, the Harwood’s curator of exhibitions, said Chinni was at the museum the day he died, supervising the deinstallation of a piece of sculpture from the show. “He was as charming as ever,” he said.

Lucile Grieder, vice chair of the Harwood Governing Board, said in a statement, "The Taos Art Community lost a major artist and an important friend to many when Peter Chinni fell and fatally injured himself. The artwork of Chinni is represented in museums and private collections from the Whitney and Hirshhorn to the Rockefeller Gardens and MIT. Seven years ago a major sculpture was installed outside of the Harwood."

Although the Taos Arts Council nominated Chinni for a New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in February 2018, he wasn’t selected. But, his nomination indicated the level of respect he has engendered in Taos.

TAC Director Paul Figueroa, upon hearing of Chinni’s death, said, “The Taos Arts Council was fortunate to recognize Peter Chinni as a Taos treasure at our inaugural arts gala in 2018. The evening was a beautiful tribute with family and friends gathered to celebrate a vibrant and creative individual. Honoring Peter for his accomplishments during a dynamic and plentiful career we were pleased to nominate Peter Chinni for the 2018 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. He inspired many artists of Taos, worked every day in his studio and delighted in sharing stories with those he encountered during the day.”

Epstein said in the nine decades of his life, Chinni had “an amazing career.”

Chinni was born in 1928, in Mount Kisco, New York, the son of immigrants from Calabria, Italy. “My mother worked cleaning houses, and I had five sisters, three brothers, nephews and nieces all living in the same house,” Chinni told The Taos News reporter John Miller for a 2017 Tradiciones article. “My family had a huge impact on my development. I didn’t realize that until about 20 years ago. But as you get older, you start looking back and remembering.”

Chinni had an awareness of his creativity from the time he was very young. He said that he began singing with his family when he was 3 years old, and at school, he would sketch the people and places he saw around his neighborhood.

At age 19 he enrolled with the Art Students League in New York where he caught the attention of the great Italian critic and art historian, Lionello Venturi, according to his online bio.

Chinni once told this writer in no uncertain terms that on his second day of art school, “I committed myself to this [his art]. I knew, and I’ve been true to that.”

With Venturi’s endorsement, he attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, studying painting and portraiture. In 1949, he left the Accademia to study privately with painter Felice Casorati in Turin and later with the cubist sculptor Roberto Melli in Rome.

Chinni was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces in 1951, and spent two years stationed in Dachau, Germany.

“The military had a music school in Dachau where, if you passed the audition, they would train you for four months and then assign you to a military band somewhere,” Chinni told Miller. “I passed the audition on the clarinet, but I wanted to continue working on my art. I asked the sergeant, and he reached into a drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil, handed it to me and said, ‘Do my picture.’ As a portrait painter, I had no problem, so he took me to the concert hall and asked, ‘Can you paint something here?’ “ Chinni painted a mural on the evolution of music and musical instruments, and continued to work on special projects for the next two years.

The Italian influence is strong in Chinni’s work, infused as it seems with hints of futurism woven through his three-dimensional abstraction. He was a thoughtful, contemplative man, and his philosophical ideals are revealed in a design element that frequently appears. It is an interlocking feature that simultaneously looks both mechanical and organic.

“I’ve believed for a long time that nothing stands alone,” he once told this writer. “Everything has a partner, no matter how much you break it down under a microscope. What keeps them alive, in a sense, is a certain dynamic that’s created between them. I borrowed a little from Michelangelo there. In his painting in the Sistine Chapel, ‘The Creation,’ God’s finger and man’s finger, they don’t touch.”

Chinni was honored by the Shah of Iran with a solo show on the Island of Kish in 1974. He continued his success with exhibitions at the Musée d’Ixelles in Brussels, the Beeckestijn Museum in Holland and the Bouma Gallerie in Amsterdam.

He has important pieces in the Rockefeller collection, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Later, a divorce would create a source of pain that has never left him. But, through it all, he maintained a devotion to his daughters and his work and rolled with the punches by employing a spirituality not tied to any one religion. In addition to the interlocking element, Chinni said he has also been fascinated by the image of a seed.

“I have meditated on the seed for many years,” he said. “You put a little seed in the palm of your hand and what do you see? Nothing. You see a shell. But, within that shell is a tree, its fruit. There are leaves and stems and roots, and once that life force is activated, I think in relative terms it’s like an atomic explosion. As I talk about it now, I get a physical response just imagining that. A lot of my work is based on that concept.”

Meanwhile, the fickle art world of the fashion hungry 1980s, in its breathless pursuit of postmodernism’s latest topical deconstruction, had little patience for the sensitive formalism of Chinni’s work. When an error at his foundry in Italy caused the destruction of the molds for nearly 20 years’ worth of work, it might have seemed like the final straw. But Chinni continued to develop his art and since his move to Taos reworked some of these earlier pieces – not recreating them, but revising and expanding their initial impulses into new territory so that along with their maker, they are undergoing a phoenix-like rebirth.

Epstein said he worked five to seven hours a day in his studio right up until his death.

A memorial is being planned. More information will be announced once it becomes available.

This is an expanded version than was previously published online.


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