Bonito Oliva was born in 1939 in Caggiano, in the province of Salerno, in Campania in southern Italy. He studied law, and then took a degree in letters. He took part in events connected with the avant-garde Gruppo 63 literary movement of the 1960s.
In 1968 he began teaching history of contemporary art at La Sapienza, the university of Rome.
He became active as an art critic, as a writer on history of art – with work on Mannerism, the historic Avant-Garde movements, and the Neo-Avantgarde – and as an organiser and curator of contemporary art events and exhibitions.
Bonito Oliva has curated thematic and interdisciplinary exhibitions, including "Contemporanea" (Villa Borghese, Rome, 1974), "Aperto 1980" (together with Harald Szeemann, Venice Biennale, 1980), "Avanguardia Transavanguardia" (Mura Aureliane, Rome, 1982), "'Mythe, Drame, Tragedie", Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, Paris (1982), "Art and Depression" (Museo Correr, Venice, 1984), and "Minimalia" (P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, 1998). He directed the 45th Venice Biennale (1993), the 1st Valencia Biennale (2001), and was the curator of the Italian Pavilion at the 7th Paris Biennale (1971). He has been awarded several prizes and recognitions, including the Valentino d’Oro, an international prize for art critics, in 1991.
In 1978 Bonito Oliva coined the term Transavanguardia to describe the Italian version of Neo-Expressionism, an art movement that rejected conceptual art, reintroducing emotions ― especially joy ― back into drawing, painting and sculpture. The artists revived figurative art and symbolism. The principal transavantgarde artists were Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria and Mimmo Paladino.
Bonito Oliva has written many books and authored monographs on the work of artists such as Marina Abramovic, Francis Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, James Lee Byars, Giorgio de Chirico, Braco Dimitrijević, Marcel Duchamp, Giuseppe Ducrot, Alex Katz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Paul Klee, Nam June Paik, Joan Mirò, Pino Pascali, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mario Schifano, Nancy Spero, Andy Warhol, Wolf Vostell and Robert Wilson.