Johannes Siegfried (Hans) Richter was born on April 6, 1888, in Berlin. He briefly studied architecture at Berlin University and in 1908 enrolled at the Berlin Fine Arts Academy. The following year he studied at the Weimar Academy, focusing on the Old Masters. Around 1912 he was introduced to modern art through the works of the Blaue Reiter group, and the following year he visited the Erster Deutsche Herbstsalon exhibitoin at Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, where he became familiar with the works of the Fauvists, Cubists, and Futurists. His initial art production was, however, interrupted by World War I; he served on the front until 1916, when he was discharged on account of an injury. That same year the Die Aktion magazine, which he had previously collaborated with, devoted a special issue to him, and he held his first solo show at the Hans Goltz gallery in Munich.

Richter then moved to Zurich and joined the Dada movement. In 1917, after a brief Expressionist period, during which his visionary portraits emerged, he started experimenting with abstraction. In 1918 he met the Swedish painter Viking Eggeling and, finding their practices shared common ground, started to collaborate with him. The following year he produced his first Prélude, based on a formal pattern that develops uninterruptedly along a strip of paper. In 1920 he joined the Berlin November Group and collaborated with the Dutch periodical De Stijl. In an attempt to confer real movement to his work, he moved towards filmmaking and shot Rhythmus 21, his first abstract film, in 1921. From 1923 to 1926 he managed the magazine G with Mies van der Rohe and Werner Graeff and went on to make documentaries, advertisements, and experimental films, while continuing to paint.

In 1940 he moved to the United States, and two years later he was appointed director of the Film Institute at the City College of New York. This marked the beginning teaching career that lasted fifteen years. During this period he became part of the American Abstract Expressionists. In 1957 he finished his film, Dadascope, with poems and prose recited by Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Raoul Hausmann, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Kurt Schwitters. Hans Richter, whose work has been exhibited in major museums worldwide, died in Locarno, Switzerland, on February 1, 1976.