Elderfield joined the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as Curator of Painting and Sculpture in 1975. He served the Museum as Chief Curator at Large from 1993 to 2003. As Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum, he reinstalled that collection in 2004 in its newly rebuilt premises.
Elderfield had published studies of Henri Matisse, Kurt Schwitters, Richard Diebenkorn, Howard Hodgkin, and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. In 1986, Elderfield received the Eric Mitchell Prize for his book on Schwitters.
He serves on the board of the Dedalus Foundation, the Members’ Board of the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C, the American Advisory Committee of the Courtauld Institute of Art, the American Committee of the Praemium Imperiale, and the Advisory Committee of the Kate Weare Dance Company; is a Member of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, and an Honorary Member of Proyecto Armando Reverón, Caracas.
- Flight out of Time: a Dada Diary (University of California Press, 1974; revised 1996) ISBN 978-0-520-20440-9
- Kurt Schwitters (New edition 1987), Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-27474-3
- Modern Painting And Sculpture: 1880 to Present at the Museum of Modern Art ISBN 0-87070-576-8
- Henri Matisse: A retrospective ISBN 0-87070-432-X
- Helen Frankenthaler ISBN 0-8109-0916-2
- Language of the Body: drawings by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon ISBN 0-8109-3585-6
- Who’s Who 2011, A&C Black, 2011
- Battersby, Matilda (September 2, 2010). "Bob Dylan paintings at Danish National Gallery". The Independent (London). Retrieved September 9, 2010.
- "Bob Dylan. The Brazil Series". Statens Museum for Kunst.dk. September 1, 2010. Retrieved April 23, 2011.
- John Elderfield Dedalus Foundation, New York.
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