Richard Oelze was born on June 29, 1900, in Magdeburg, Germany. He first trained as a lithographer but after World War I attended the Kunstgewerberschule in Magdeburg, where he devoted himself to studying drawing. In 1921 he enrolled at the Weimar Bauhaus and took courses with Johannes Itten and Paul Klee. He moved to Dresden in 1926, quickly becoming part of the local art scene and meeting Will Grohmann, who was to influence his work considerably. In Dresden, Oelze took courses at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied the work of Otto Dix, and worked as an assistant at the art and architecture school founded by Itten in Berlin in 1926. During that time, he met Hans Richter, with whom he collaborated on photography projects and film productions, and then studied at the Dessau Bahaus for a few months.

After moving to Ascona, Switzerland, in 1929, Oelze encountered Surrealism for the first time and moved back to Germany the following year. In 1933 he decided to go to Paris, where he met and associated with André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Tristan Tzara. Despite never officially subscribing to Surrealism, he participated in some of the movement's most important exhibitions, such as the International Surrealist Exhibition and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, organized in 1936 at the New Burlington Galleries in London and The Museum of Modern Art in New York. That same year he returned to Ascona and in 1939 moved to Worpswede, Germany. During World War II he served in the German Army and was taken prisoner. At the end of the war, he was freed and resumed painting. He had solo exhibitions at the Moderne Galerie of Cologne in 1950 and the Graphische Kabinett of Bremen in 1952, and in 1959 he took part in Documenta, Kassel.

In 1962 Oelze moved to Posteholz, where he continued his artistic activity away from the public eye. During the 1960s and 1970s he had many exhibitions, including one major retrospective at the Kestner-Gesellschaft of Hanover in 1964. In 1965 he was nominated a member of the Akademie der Künste of Berlin. Oelze died in Posteholz on November 26, 1980.