Born in Yorkshire, England, Elderfield studied fine art at the University of Leeds and received his PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, in 1975. That same year, he joined The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), as curator of painting and sculpture. Over more than thirty years, he held a variety of positions at MoMA, including director of the Department of Drawings; chief curator-at-large; and the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, in which position he reinstalled the museum’s painting and sculpture collection in 2004 in its newly rebuilt premises.
While at MoMA, and following on his retirement from the Museum in 2008, Elderfield curated or co-curated many acclaimed exhibitions, including The Modern Drawing (1983), Kurt Schwitters (1985), Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (1992), Bonnard (1998), Matisse Picasso (2002), Manet and the Execution of Maximilian (2006), Martin Puryear (2007), Matisse: Radical Invention (2010) and de Kooning: A Retrospective (2011).
Since 2012, Elderfield has been an independent curator and art historian, as well as a consultant to the Gagosian Gallery, where he has curated exhibitions including Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959 (2013) and the upcoming In the Studio, an exploration of paintings of artists’ studios from the 18th through the 20th centuries (opening February 2015). Also forthcoming, is Paul Cézanne: Portraits, which will debut at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris in 2017 before travelling to the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In addition to his notable curatorial career, Elderfield has written twenty-four books and catalogues, and nearly one hundred scholarly articles. Selected awards include the Mitchell Prize in Twentieth-Century Art for Kurt Schwitters (1986), Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of the year” (2005), and the Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Government (2006). He has also been a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1972), a visiting fellow at the Getty Research Institute (2001), and an associate fellow of the American Academy in Rome (2006).