At 87, Peter Chinni has enjoyed a distinguished career that began in the 1950’s and spans two continents. Born to Calabrian immigrant parents in Mount Kisco, New York in 1928, Chinni studied at the Art Students League in New York where he caught the attention of the great Italian critic and art historian, Lionello Venturi. 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.
After two years of military duties in Germany for the US Armed Forces, Chinni worked from his studio in Manhattan and had his first one-man show of paintings at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Although he still paints and will occasionally even accept a portrait commission, it was in Rome that Chinni discovered his natural inclination toward sculpture, making his first piece in 1957. Italian hill towns perched on their cliffs, along with the influence of Italian Futurism, helped him in his attempts to clarify and exploit three-dimensional forms, progressively eliminating pictorial vision to let elements of abstraction play a larger part. By 1959 he had his first one-man show of sculpture in New York City, with pieces purchased by the City of Saint Louis and the Denver Art Museum.
During the 1960’s in New York, Chinni developed a powerful and richly expressive approach to three-dimensional abstraction, concentrating on an elemental language of essential forms. With additional one-man exhibitions at the Royal Marks Gallery (1964), the Albert Loeb Gallery (1966), and the Loeb-Krugier Gallery (1969), together with his participation in biennials at the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Carnegie International, Chinni’s reputation was firmly established. Shows in Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Italy maintained his presence in Europe. In 1969 he returned to Italy, eventually settling into a ruined hilltop village in Tuscany which he renovated in the hope of establishing an interdisciplinary school of the arts.
In the 1970’s, Chinni began to experiment with interactive totemic elements that relate and interlock into a single form. Viewed frontally, the abstract elements suggest broken tectonic plates or the ruptured husk of a seed. The separate components appear to have split apart along an exaggerated seam, where they continue to interact, separating and rejoining like meshed gears. Viewed from either end, however, the sculpture fuses into a faceted monolithic mass; a condensed organic seed form that nevertheless seems about to burst with the potential energy of an internal life force. In other pieces, Chinni works with clusters of circular disks or plate-like forms. These can either be compressed into rippling ridges like the accordion folds of a bellows, or stretched lengthwise into long segmented tubes, like spinal bones or the shaft of a mechanical harrow. In either case, the resulting sculptures appear to expand and contract, rippling with a deep set rhythmic energy that evokes the pulse and breath of a vital organism.
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 Musee’ d’Ixelle 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. Not long after his return to the US in the late 1970’s, a family crisis forced him to curtail his creative activity. Meanwhile, the fickle art world of the fashion hungry 1980’s, 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 twenty years’ worth of work, it might have seemed like the final straw. But, Chinni has continued to develop his art and since his move to Taos, New Mexico several years ago, has been reworking 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.