Elaine Frances Horan was born on 23 August 1924, in Lakewood, Ohio, near Cleveland. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, followed by a master’s in the field from Teachers College of Columbia University. In New York, she also studied at the Art Students League.
Sturtevant's earliest known paintings were made in New York in the late 1950s. In these works, she sliced open tubes of paint, flattened them, and attached them to canvas. Most of these works contain fragments from tubes of several colors of paint, some have additional pencil scribbles and daubs of paint. Sturtevant was close friends with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both of whom own paintings from this period. In 1964, by memorization only, she began to manually reproduce paintings and objects created by her contemporaries with results that can immediately be identified with an original, at a point that turned the concept of originality on its head. She initially focused on works by such American artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. Warhol gave Sturtevant one of his silkscreens so she could produce her own versions of his "Flowers" paintings, and when asked about his technique, once said, "I don't know. Ask Elaine." After a Jasper Johns flag painting that was a component of Robert Rauschenberg's combine “Short Circuit” was stolen, Rauschenberg commissioned Sturtevant to paint a reproduction, which was subsequently incorporated into the combine. In the late 1960s, Sturtevant concentrated on replicating works by Joseph Beuys and Duchamp. In a 1967 photograph, she and Rauschenberg pose as a nude Adam and Eve, roles originally played by Marcel Duchamp and Brogna Perlmutter in a 1924 picture shot by Man Ray.
In the early 1970s, Sturtevant stopped exhibiting art for more than 10 years. That happened shortly after having successively a negative reception for her show Studies done for Beuys' Action and objects, Duchamps' etc. Including film at the Everson Museum, in 1973, and her entourage crisis starting with the Claes Oldenburg big upset for having, in 1967, The Store of Claes Oldenburg exhibition (read here the subtle title adjustment from its original Oldenburg exhibition The Store by Claes Oldenburg) just a few blocs away from where the original exhibition actually happened, in 1961.
From the early 1980s she focused on the next generation of artists, including Robert Gober, Anselm Kiefer, Paul McCarthy, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. She mastered painting, sculpture, photography and film in order to produce a full range of copies of the works of her chosen artists. In most cases, her decision to start copying an artist happened before those artists achieved broader recognition. Nearly all of the artists she chose to copy are today considered iconic for their time or style. This has given rise to discussions among art critics on how it had been possible for Sturtevant to identify those artists at such an early stage.
In 1991, Sturtevant presented an entire show consisting of her repetition of Warhol’s ‘Flowers’ series.
Her later works mainly focus on reproductions in the digital age. Sturtevant commented on her work at her 2012 retrospective Sturtevant: Image over Image at the Moderna Museet: "What is currently compelling is our pervasive cybernetic mode, which plunks copyright into mythology, makes origins a romantic notion, and pushes creativity outside the self. Remake, reuse, reassemble, recombine - that's the way to go."
After feeling misunderstood by critics and artists, Sturtevant stopped making art for a decade. Her 2014 exhibition at MoMA was the first significant exhibition in the US in decades. Her last large-scale installation, The House of Horrors, has been on temporary display at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris since June 2015.
“In some ways, style is her medium. She was the first postmodern artist — before the fact — and also the last.”, according to Peter Eleey, curator of her 2014 Moma exhibition.
Sturtevant died on 7 May 2014 in Paris, where she had been living and working since the early 1990s. She was 89.
Sturtevant had her first her solo exhibition in 1965 at the Bianchini Gallery, in New York. In 1975, a show was dedicated to her by the German art dealer Reinhard Onnasch in his New York gallery.
Solo exhibitions of her work have since been mounted at:Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart (1992)
Deichtorhallen, Hamburg (1992)
Villa Arson, Nice (1993)
Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main (2004)
Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2010)
La Biennale di Venezia (2011)
Moderna Museet (2012)
Serpentine Galleries (2013)
Museum of Modern Art (2014)
Sturtevant. Drawing Double Reversal: Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main/Albertina, Vienna/Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (2015)
In 2008, Sturtevant received the Francis J. Greenburger Award.
On 4 June 2011, Sturtevant received the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 54th Venice Biennale.
In September 2013, she was awarded the Kurt Schwitters Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the Sprengel Museum.
In 2007, an original Crying Girl by Roy Lichtenstein sold at auction for $78,400; in 2011, Sturtevant’s canvas reworking of Crying Girl — the only Sturtevant painting of its kind in existence — sold for $710,500. In 2014, Lichtenstein, Frighten Girl (1966) sold at Christie's for $3.4 million. Shortly after, Warhol Diptych (1973) was sold for $5,093,000 at Christie's in New York.