Born and raised in the town of Oels, Polke moved with his family to Düsseldorf in 1953. After working as an apprentice to a glass-painter, he enrolled in 1961 at the Kunstakademie, and held his first Capitalist Realist exhibition with fellow student Gerhard Richter. Polke experimented with a wide range of styles, subject matters and materials. In the 1970s, he concentrated on photography, returning to paint in the 1980s, when he produced abstract works created by chance through chemical reactions between paint and other products. In the last 20 years of his life, he produced paintings focused on historical events and perceptions of them.
Fascinated with alchemical processes and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, the artist began adding an unusual combination of materials to his canvases: from dangerous chemicals and meteorite powder, to bubble-wrap and snail slime. His best known works are from the ‘raster’ series, in which he used a grid method to paint the mistakes found in magnified newspaper images.
He died of cancer in 2010.