THE most exciting place to stand at midnight on New Year's Eve may not be in Times Square but at the Renwick Gallery, where 12 strange clocks will strike the hour.

In "Masterpieces of Time: Clocks by Wendell Castle," a clock called "Desk" resounds the hour from inside its wooden chest like a cowboy's cough. "Bird" trills every 15 minutes, to remind us that time flies. Only "Ghost," the 13th clock, glowers silently, a grandfather's clock covered with a sheet.

But, as the museum is closed at night, no one will know if the trompe l'oeil "Ghost," made entirely of wood (including the "sheet"), chooses to knell a 13th hour after midnight. One thing we can be sure of -- the clock's creator, Wendell Castle, wanted us to consider the possibility.

His functional art has gone from abstract tables to tables with heads in the center. His clocks are all floor-standing and one-of-a-kind, and Castle apparently can't make one without tweaking our notions of time. Reaching back, he employs Egyptian motifs, the classic triumphal arch and Art Deco themes. He looks into the future with "Mystery" clock, a rocket poised for flight with stylized thrusters and Saturnine rings.

Beneath four concentric clock faces that represent American time zones and infinity, the "Magician" plays an arcane version of Big Ben's tune. "Ziggurat" is missing the 12th hour. The "Four Years Before Lunch" clock can be speeded up.

As all of these complex and finely crafted clocks in myriad woods and metals were made in the past year or so, it's clear that Castle wouldn't have had time to do it all himself.

"The problem with wood is, it's almost a lifetime's work," says Renwick curator Mike Monroe. "People working in wood will get many more ideas for pieces than they can possibly do on their own."

Needing not just carpenters, but artisans who know how to cast brass or polish acrylic, Castle has a workshop full of two dozen students, where, says Monroe, "He is designer and director. He is like the conductor of an orchestra."

And the clocks play the songs. Every hour on the hour, it's a little like going into the children's department and opening all the music boxes.

MASTERPIECES OF TIME: CLOCKS BY WENDELL CASTLE -- At the Renwick Gallery through May 4.