Lourdes Grobet, “La Venus” from the series La doble lucha (The double struggle) (1981–1982), black-and-white photograph, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; purchased through the Board of Advisors Acquisition Fund (© Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy Hammer Museum)

Lourdes Grobet, the Mexican artist whose photographs celebrated the world of lucha libre with dignity and candor, died on July 15 at her home in Mexico City. She was 81. Although she is best known for her portraits of legendary luchadores, such as El Santo and Blue Demon, whom she documented both in and out of the ring, Grobet had a wide-ranging career that spanned painting, video, installation, and performance. 

Grobet was born to a Mexican-Swiss family in Mexico City in 1940. She studied art at the Universidad Iberoamericana with photographer Kati Horna, painter Gilberto Aceves Navarro, and artist Mathias Goeritz, the German émigré whose ludic approach to sculpture and installation had an important impact on her practice, pushing her to explore new mediums.

Lourdes Grobet, “Hora y media (Hour and a half)” (1975), photo performance: three black-and-white photographs, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Purchased through the Board of Advisors Acquisition Fund (© Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy Hammer Museum)

In 1968, Grobet traveled to France, where she encountered Kinetic Art, an experience that spurred her shift away from painting. “Since then, I’ve worked in photography and multimedia, because I realized there was no reason for me to keep painting in the middle of the twentieth century,” she explained in the press release for her first New York solo show at Bruce Silverman Gallery in 2005. “It was the time of mass media and that had to be the language I used.”

Upon her return to Mexico, Grobet burned all of her previous work. She also staged installation-based performances such as “Serendípiti” (1970) at Mexico City’s Galería Misrachi, in which the audience had to navigate a disorienting maze of mirrors and lights. In 1975, she collaborated with Marcos Kurtycz on “Hora y Media” at Casa del Lago, a performance in which Grobet tore through aluminum foil covering a wooden frame. “Having turned the exhibition space into a darkroom of sorts, she then enlarged and developed photographs without the use of a fixer,” reads a description of the work on the Hammer Museum’s website. “When the lights were turned on, the photos disappeared in the presence of the audience.”

Grobet left Mexico again in 1977 to study photography at the Cardiff School of Art and Design in Wales. Complicating the discrete categories of photography and painting, she covered local landscapes with house paint, photographing the results — much to the dismay of her instructor, who failed her, and her neighbors, who alerted the police. She brought the process home when she returned to Mexico, painting cactuses and other elements of the landscape across Morelos, Michoacán, and Oaxaca.

Lourdes Grobet, “Untitled (Cactus Painted Red/Yellow)” (c. 1986), silver dye bleach photograph (Cibachrome), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Marcuse Pfeifer, 1990.119.12 (© Maria de Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

She soon joined Proceso Pentágono, one of the experimental, politically focused Mexican art collectives known as Grupos. “And this was a good fit, because I had an inherent leaning towards politics,” she said in an interview for the Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions (AWARE) last year. “It had been in me since I was a young woman. But not in the ‘working for a political party’ way of speaking. My political inclinations were towards working for the needs of people and working in the streets.”

Lourdes Grobet, “Pista Arena Revolucion, Ciudad de Mexico” (1983), chromogenic print; 14 × 11 in. (35.56 × 27.94 cm) (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Larry and Jane Reed © Lourdes Grobet; photo by Don Ross, courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

In the 1980s, Grobet began photographing the colorful world of lucha libre, documenting what she described as “real Mexican culture.” She focused her lens on all facets of the phenomenon, both the spectacle within the ring and intimate depictions of family life, featuring both male and female wrestlers with their guards down, but never without their masks, lending these domestic scenes a surreal quality. For Grobet, the masked luchadores were not simply contemporary entertainers, but had deep resonances within Mexican culture, from Indigenous traditions of mask-making to the masked Zapatistas of Chiapas. “As opposed to the fashionable folkloric portrait, she took images of urban Indians with their new masks, carrying out modern rituals,” wrote Gabriel Rodríguez Álvarez in the 2005 book Lucha Libre: Masked Superstars of Mexican Wrestling, a collection of her luchador photographs. Grobet’s decades-long devotion to the world of lucha libre is all the more noteworthy considering that her father forbade her from attending wrestling matches as a child, deeming them an inappropriate pastime for women. 

Lourdes Grobet, “La Briosa” (1981) from the series La doble lucha (The double struggle) (1981–2005), black-and-white photograph, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, purchased through the Board of Advisors Acquisition Fund (© Lourdes Grobet, photo courtesy Hammer Museum)

Alongside her images of wrestlers, she photographed the regional folkloric theater troupe Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena, in which she saw a rural analog to the urban theatricality of lucha libre. More recently, she directed a documentary film on the Bering Strait, “Equilibrio y Resistencia” (2021), which explores issues of migration, colonization, and borders.

Grobet was included in the Hammer Museum’s 2017 exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, which traveled to the Brooklyn Museum the following year. Her work is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Museé Quai-Branly in Paris, and the Fundación Cultural Televisa and Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, among other institutions.

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.