German painter, born at Oels (now Olesnicka) in Lower Silesia (now Poland). His family moved to West Germany in 1953. He had a reputation as both man and artist for being difficult to pin down. From 1961 to 1966 he studied at the Düsseldorf Academy, where he was influenced by Joseph Beuys. Alongside Gerhard Richter, he was associated in the early 1960s with the tendency of ‘capitalist realism’. He made paintings such as Girlfriends (1965) which mimic the dotted surface of cheap newspaper reproduction. These have a parallel with the second-hand imagery of American Pop, but this led, not as with most of the American painters to constant repetition of a successful line, but to a richly varied practice of painting. Like some other European artists working with popular imagery, he looked for subject-matter which had a national resonance rather than speaking of an imposed American culture. An amusing example is The Sausage Eater (1965), a white canvas with a mouth, a hand and a long string of very Germanic sausages. Sometimes there is a strong element of satire of other modern art. Moderne Kunst (1968) imitates the gestural qualities of informal abstraction but in an obviously mechanical way and with the title as a neatly written caption on the bottom of the painting. Carl Andre in Delft (1968) uses the American Minimalist's characteristic grid but instead of industrial materials there are depictions of hand-painted Dutch tiles. The scepticism of Polke and his generation about modern art's traditional claims to represent some kind of higher reality (see abstract art) is demonstrated in a 1969 painting (Stedelijk van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven), a blank canvas in which one corner has been painted black, according to the caption on the instruction of ‘higher beings’.
In the 1970s Polke turned to photography and video for several years, but he returned to painting in the early 1980s. This coincided with the wider revival of interest in painting after the dominance of Conceptual art, especially in Germany, but Polke's practice had little in common with that of the Neo-Expressionists. His paintings were technically inventive and cool and humorous in mood, quite in contrast to the frenzy of a Baselitz. He continued to use second-hand imagery; however he took it not just from popular sources but from the entire history of European culture. The age of Enlightenment and Romanticism is one frequent hunting-ground and Polke has something in common with those thinkers who believe that many of the ills of the past hundred years can be traced back to that age. In Children's Games (1988) two children in 18th-century costume, almost out of Mozart, are seen playing with a skull. In Paganini (1981–3) the celebrated violinist and composer, who allowed it to be rumoured that he had sold his soul to the devil for his musical skills, lies in bed, while the devil plays to him. To the left a juggler with a death's head mask juggles skulls and nuclear hazard signs. Taken at face value the political allegories might appear crude, but the imagery is only one element of Polke's art. The paintings are multi-layered in ways that prompt thought not just about the images but about the history which has brought them to us. They may start as paintings, then they are disseminated as engravings as part of the early industrialization of image production, then they have been photographed, then broken down for printing through dots and finally restored to painting by Polke.