Like Beuys, Polke created extraordinary assemblies of the most ordinary materials, which also appeared in his collages and paintings: at one point he developed a particular penchant for liverwurst and potato that culminated in 1967 with Potato House, a remarkable flat-pack installation. It was, however, as a figurative artist that he achieved the greatest success, combining ironic references to old master prints and paintings with the direct, bold imagery of popular culture, culled from newspapers, advertising and comics. In this, he was undoubtedly influenced by such figures as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whose trademark coloured spots he adapted into his own, deliberately blurred "Polke dots".
In 1963 Polke, together with such luminaries as Gerhard Richter, co-founded the movement known as Kapitalistischer Realismus ("capitalist realism"). The name is a subversion of socialist realism, the stifling official style promoted in the communist east. However, Polke's paradoxical work, with its shoddy representation of desirable foods and other commodities, was above all a parody of western commercialism.
The artists emphasised the provocative quality of their work with a series of events, including a memorable display held in 1963 inside a Düsseldorf furniture shop-front: Polke and Richter even posed themselves as "living sculptures" seated on armchairs. Within three years Polke had his own one-man exhibition at the René Block gallery in Berlin, which was soon followed by the award of the German youth art prize.
Polke's technique was always experimental and versatile. His media ranged from film and photography to watercolour, gouache and various forms of drawing. As if to emphasise his independence from history or convention, he sometimes used ephemeral substances, such as fruit juices, beeswax and candle smoke, or, like an impassioned alchemist, sprinkled grains of meteorite or arsenic over canvases covered with resin. Most strikingly, he made multilayered works from materials that included paint, lacquer, screenprint and plastic sheeting.
This physical complexity gave Polke's images a disturbing, even hallucinatory quality that may reflect his experimentation with recreational drugs, especially LSD. Mushrooms are a recurrent theme, and his photographs include manipulated images of the opium dens that he visited in Pakistan during the 1970s, some years before his renunciation of drugs and drink. While some critics have savoured this narcotic vibe, the distinguished author and broadcaster Robert Hughes compared it, less kindly, with "the rambling, no-rules character of a dopehead's monologue".