If the early bird gets the worm, the first chickadee that visited one birdhouse in Southampton, N.Y., in 1992 was a fortunate bird indeed. Inside was an art curator's dream: a ceramic worm sculpted by star artist Roy Lichtenstein, along with half a dozen other Tweety-sized works of art by Lichtenstein. It was the inaugural exhibition of the International Bird Museum.
The concept of a museum showing art by human artists, yet accessible only to birds, was hatched by Paul Waldman, a New York artist whose works are in major collections like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington.
On display at the Leo Castelli Gallery here in SoHo are eight rococo birdhouses that Waldman created, along with one of three ''branches'' of the bird museum.
Timothy Eaton, director of Eaton Fine Art in Boca Raton, Fla., sponsored a branch of the bird museum when he was chief curator at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. ''It's a great expression of the value of art,'' he says, ''which is not finance but a higher spiritual realm.'' When Eaton invited artists to create works for the 30-by-15-by-20-inch structure, the artists ''locked in on the idea immediately,'' he says. ''There was no lag time between the explanation and the ecstasy of it.''
''The bird museum doesn't boil down to one single point or joke. It's got levels to it,'' says Jill Weinberg Adams, owner of Lennon, Weinberg Gallery, who curated a show for the museum. ''Pushing things over the line is all part of Paul's work.''
As Waldman said himself in a recent interview, ''Things are not what they appear. Nothing I've ever done is just one thing.''
For the past four years, Waldman has invited artists, including major figures like Ellsworth Kelly, Jim Dine, and Kenneth Noland, to mount shows in a bird museum perched on the roof of his summer home. When sculptor Mia Westerlund-Roosen was approached, she said she'd be ''honored and delighted'' to participate. ''It seemed very amusing and an odd thing to do, so I did it.'' She created a surrealistic piece called ''Domestic Disturbance,'' consisting of a rug-like floor over a mysterious hump, implying dirt buried beneath.
Pop artist Jim Dine devised an original installation of three carved Venuses facing a skull sculpted from bread. ''I did this for myself and for the birds,'' he says. ''It's a quirky, goofy idea.''
Abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly contributed drawings of his artist friends like Jasper Johns to hang on the walls of the gallery, which is about the size of a breadbox. On the floor was a drawing of his face, on which he hoped birds would nest. For Kelly, the project had an environmental meaning. ''It makes everyone more aware of the necessity of the birds.'' Like a canary in a coal mine, birds warn us that Mother Earth is at risk, he says.
The International Bird Museum is a legal, nonprofit institution with six ''exhibitions'' each season announced in full-page newspaper ads. The catch: You can't see them without wings. Waldman invented it partly out of curiosity. ''I got to watch what artists would do and how they would behave in a situation where no one would see their work.'' They responded with amazing integrity, he says, putting enormous effort and ''poetry'' into their exhibitions.
''To become known to the bird world is not exactly beneficial to one's career,'' Lichtenstein acknowledges. Still, he took pains with his Lilliputian works, even creating a painting he called ''Birdica,'' in homage to Picasso's ''Guernica.'' He described it as ''a wild profusion of feathers in various colors that looked as if something disastrous had happened'' and a ''strong antiwar statement. You can't see it, so you'll just have to believe it was brilliant.''
''What's important about the idea is it emphasizes that ultimately the making of art is a private experience,'' says Linda Shearer, director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass. (Exhibitions at her local branch of the bird museum include shows by artists like Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman.) ''It really grabs peoples' imaginations and makes you think - who are we doing it for?'' Shearer adds.
What drew artists to participate with such ''glee,'' according to Eaton, was their ''hunger for things of more transcendental value than merchandise. Seldom can you shroud such a noble idea in such an amusing vessel.''
Waldman agrees, saying, ''It's not a museum of absurdity but a museum of spirit.'' The concept held deep personal significance for him. ''It's a fantasy museum, free of bureaucracy, with no constraints or censorship,'' he says.
Yet because he is no St. Francis of Assisi but a complicated artist, the bird museum is not just for amusement.
For years, Waldman has painstakingly created birdhouses every year as gifts for his wife, Diane Waldman, deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. They are elaborate sculptures constructed of 10,000 one-half-inch bricks, fired, glazed, and mortared. The birdhouse called ''Diane's Motel'' includes sculpted heads of demonic cherubs, a campanile, and a ceramic torso of a goddess. ''The birdhouses are Paul's most interesting and original work,'' says art dealer Leo Castelli.
Yet, like the museums, the birdhouses are really for Waldman more than for the birds. At 15, he ran away from an abusive family situation. Now he makes birdhouses to recapture, as he puts it, ''the home I never had.'' Although strikingly beautiful on the exterior, they have elements of perversity. Some hold secrets, like a doll's arms and legs hidden in a hole in the porch. ''When I make art, I'm speaking to myself primarily,'' he says, ''but I hope it has universal, powerful secrets attached to it.''
Among Waldman's current work is a series of ''gangster'' paintings, which portray the reality behind mythologized would-be hoods. Pretty Boy Floyd, he says, was actually just a ''bully'' who fabricated his dangerous persona. Waldman uses a diptych format, portraying Pretty Boy as an innocent farm boy in bright sunlight on one side, adjacent to a panel showing the same landscape at night. The interior of the farmhouse is lit up, an image of the welcoming home for which the artist longs.
* Waldman's birdhouses and paintings are on display at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York through Feb. 3.