Nelson Sullivan & the 5 Ninth Avenue Project

Nelson Sullivan & the 5 Ninth Avenue Project

I have been watching a lot of Nelson Sullivan & the 5 Ninth Avenue Project during the early part of my stroke recovery. It reminds me a lot of growing up in the early 90s. 

Nelson Sullivan (March 15, 1948 – July 4, 1989) was an American videographer. He was ubiquitous on the New York City downtown art & club scene during the 1980s. Born on March 15, 1948, in Kershaw, South Carolina. His family was upper-middle class & from an early age he was given music lessons, with consideration for 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. He rented a studio apartment in the West Village and soon made a decision to pursue a career as a composer. By day, Sullivan worked at Joseph Patelson Music House, the classical music store behind Carnegie Hall. He moved from apartment to apartment over the next ten years.

In 1980, he saw a building on the corner of Gansevoort & 9th Avenue in the Meat Packing District with a rental sign on the door. Sullivan purchased the duplex & soon renovated the building to be his own salon. It also became a hotel, way-station & halfway house for people either visiting or moving to the city. Artists, musicians & performers dropped by at all hours to hang out, the ongoing 24-hour salon gave Sullivan the idea to begin videotaping his life. Nelson's constant companion was a Flat-Coated Retriever named Blackout.

In the early 1980s, Sullivan began to make use of inexpensive handheld video cameras then coming on the market. Using first a VHS-loading camera & later upgrading to an 8mm video camera, he shot over 1,900 hours of tape over a period of seven years, filming himself & his friends in Manhattan's downtown life. He sought to tape all of New York's citizens, including its outcasts. He taped anything and everything that interested him - performances in bars & clubs, house parties, gallery openings, park & street festivals, late-night ruminations of his friends, conversations with taxi drivers, sunset walks with his dog on the west side piers, & a variety of behavior on the part of people he met on the streets of New York City.

As well as a frequenter of the galleries, clubs & bars of the Lower East Side & Greenwich Village, Sullivan was on the periphery of the Warhol crowd's later incarnations, headquartered further north at 17th & Broadway & 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 & actress Sylvia Miles. All of these, with the exception of Miles, were drag queens. Sullivan's films of 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 Sullivan. In the late 80s, Sullivan renovated a three-story former carriage house into a "factory" at 5 Ninth Ave, in New York's Meatpacking District. With a cast that included RuPaul, DJ Larry Tee, Lahoma Van Zant, Lady Bunny, Michael Musto, & artist Albert Crudo.

He chronicled the rise and fall of many of his friends & peers including, Ethyl Eichelberger, John Sex, Keith Haring, Tom Rubnitz & Michael Alig.

On July 4, 1989, Sullivan died of a heart attack aged 41. He had quit his full-time job just three days prior to his death in order to produce his own cable television show of his footage.

x Sean

More New York City!


More Posts