Sullivan was born in Kershaw, South Carolina, March 15, 1948. His family was upper-middle class, and from an early age he was given music lessons, with an eye toward a career as a classical pianist. After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1970, he moved to New York, part of the post-Stonewall wave of young gay men who were then heading to either San Francisco or Manhattan to partake of the more liberated lifestyle they had been reading about in newspapers and magazines. He landed a studio apartment in the West Village and soon made a decision to pursue a career as a composer. By days Nelson worked at Joseph Patelson Music House, the famous classical music store behind Carnegie Hall. He moved from apartment to apartment over the next ten years, never getting one quite large enough to comfortably fit his piano. In 1980, he saw a building on the corner of Gansevoort and 9th Avenue in the Meat Packing District with a For Rent sign on the door. The price was right, and the dilapidated old duplex was soon the center of a unique, revolving universe of friends and scene-makers. It also became a hotel, way-station, and halfway house for people either visiting or moving to the city. Artists, musicians, and performers dropped by at all hours to hang out, and it was this feeling of an ongoing 24-hour salon that gave Sullivan the idea to begin videotaping his life.
Like many in the early 1980s, Sullivan recognized an unlimited potential in the advent of the new inexpensive handheld video cameras then coming on the market. Using first a cumbersome VHS-loading camera and later upgrading to an 8mm video camera, he shot over 1,900 hours of tape over a period of seven years, capturing himself and his friends in the glossy façade of Manhattan's downtown life that has been perpetuated in urban legend. He sought to tape all of New York's citizens, including its outcasts, striving to candidly capture their lives. He taped anything and everything that interested him - outrageous performances in bars and clubs, swinging house parties, chaotic gallery openings, park and street festivals, late-night ruminations of his friends, absurd conversations with taxi drivers, prosaic sunset walks with his dog on the then-still-existing west side piers, and a variety of curious behaviour on the part of people he met on the streets of New York City.
As well as a frequenter of the galleries, clubs, and bars of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, Sullivan was on the periphery of the Warhol crowd's later incarnations, headquartered a bit further north at 17th and Broadway, and at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South. He counted among his friends a variety of that scene's characters, such as Andy's young friend Benjamin Liu, singer Joey Arias, fashion designer Alexis Del Lago, and actress Sylvia Miles. All of these, with the exception of Miles, were to one degree or another drag queens. In fact, Sullivan's fascination with his friends' crossdressing was to become a leitmotif of his work. That can be seen in the footage of Guy Bernotas' 1982 production of Momma Said, entirely shot by Nelson. In the late '80s, Sullivan cultivated a "factory" of his own at 5 Ninth Ave, a three-story former carriage house in the heart of New York's Meatpacking district. With a cast that included Superstar RuPaul, DJ Larry Tee, Lahoma Van Zant, Lady Bunny, Michael Musto, artist Albert Crudo and a bevy of other colorful characters making cameo appearances, it was the epi-center of a creative revolution.
A prolific videographer, Sullivan's revolutionary style is a combination of cinematic and in-camera editing techniques. His technique was so fluid that viewers would often see Sullivan walk across the screen and wonder who was pointing the camera.
Sullivan knew he lived in interesting times, and he worked hard to capture more than a video freak-show. He chronicled the rise and fall of many of his friends and peers including, Ethyl Eichelberger, John Sex, Keith Haring, Tom Rubnitz, Michael Alig and countless other denizens of a demimonde being ravaged by AIDS, heroin, and anomie. Sullivan himself died from a heart attack on July 4, 1989, just three days after quitting his full-time job so that he could produce his own cable television show of his footage.
In October 2012, New York University's Fales Library & Special Collections accepted the Nelson Sullivan Video Archive as a donation from Atlantans Dick Richards and David Goldman, and Robert Coddington of Durham, N.C. (operating collectively as the 5 Ninth Avenue Project).
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