Polke was born in Oels in Lower Silesia. He fled with his family to Thuringia in 1945 during the Expulsion of Germans after World War II. His family escaped from the Communist regime in East Germany in 1953, traveling first to West Berlin and then to Düsseldorf.
Upon his arrival in West Germany, in Wittich, Polke began to spend time in galleries and museums and worked as an apprentice in a stained glass factory called Dusseldorf Kaiserswerth, before entering the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Art School) at age twenty. From 1961-1967 he studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy under Karl Otto Goetz and Gerhard Hoehme and began his creative output during a time of enormous social, cultural, and artistic changes in Germany and elsewhere. During the 1960s,Düsseldorf, in particular, was a prosperous, commercial city and an important center of artistic activity.
In 1963 Polke founded “Kapitalistischen Realismus” (Capitalistic Realism), a painting movement with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg (later called Konrad Fischer). It is an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial short-hand of advertising. This title also referred to the realist style of art known as ‘Socialist Realism’, then the official art doctrine of the Soviet Union (from which he had fled with his family), but it also commented upon the consumer-driven art ‘doctrine’ of western capitalism. He also participated in “Demonstrative Ausstellung”, a store-front exhibition in Düsseldorf with Kuttner, Lueg, and Richter.
Polke's creative output during this time of enormous social, cultural, and artistic changes in Germany and elsewhere, demonstrate most vividly his imagination, sardonic wit, and subversive approach in his drawings, watercolors, and gouaches produced during the 1960s and 1970's. Embedded in these images are incisive and parodic commentaries on consumer society, the postwar political scene in Germany, and classic artistic conventions.
The anarchistic element of the work Polke developed, was largely engendered by his mercurial approach. His irreverence for traditional painting techniques and materials and his lack of allegiance to any one mode of representation has established his now-respected reputation as a visual revolutionary. Paganini, an expression of "the difficulty of purging the demons of Nazism" - witness the "hidden" swastikas - is typical of Polke's tendency to accumulate a range of different mediums within one canvas. It is not unusual for Polke to combine household materials and paint, lacquers, pigments, screen print and transparent sheeting in one piece. A complicated "narrative" is often implicit in the multi-layered picture, giving the effect of witnessing the projection of a hallucination or dream through a series of veils.
Polke embarked on a series of world travels throughout the 1970s, photographing in Pakistan, Paris, New York, Afghanistan, and Brazil. From 1977-1991 he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg. He settled in Cologne, where he continues to live and work.
In 2007, Vienna's Museum Moderner Kunst held an exhibition of Polke's work entitled, "Sigmar Polke: Retrospektive" that spanned his career from his appropriations of Pop imagery and continuing through decades of perplexing compositions and clever critiques to arrive at current works that employ a haze of chemicals, minerals, and paints.