The National Museum of American Art, whose curatorial policies mystify the viewer, has baffled us again. How, one can't help wonder, does it go about selecting its few contemporary shows?

A solo exhibition there ought to be a badge of honor. You might think -- though you'd be wrong -- that the National Museum would show the most important artists in America. It's not that hard to name them. Anyone can make a list. Sheila Isham, Perkins Harnly, Keith Achepohl, Joseph Goldyne, Robert Indiana and Alexander Hogue -- all of whom have shown there since 1981 -- would not be on mine.

Nor would Patrick Ireland, whose art is now on view.

It is not that his exhibit, "Drawings: 1965-1985," is dreary or embarrassing. In fact, it's rather beautiful. Ireland's best drawings are refined and cerebral. Viewers fond as I am of Conceptualism's rigors and Minimalism's austerities will find many of them pleasing. Ireland's exhibit treats both mind and eye.

His intelligence is obvious. So, too, is his knowledge. Though his sort of spare, systemic art is no longer much in vogue, Ireland refuses to pander to the market. One admires his restraint.

Still his exhibit raises questions both esthetic and political. Ireland's originality, or perhaps his lack of it, will trouble many viewers. And his high position in the government's art bureaucracy -- a position for some reason never mentioned in the catalogue -- also seeds the mind with doubts.

Ireland's given name is Brian O'Doherty. He was born Brian O'Doherty in Ballaghaderreen, Ireland, in 1934. Brian O'Doherty has worked as an art critic for The New York Times and as an editor for Art in America. He's been often on the tube. He is the author of "American Masters: The Voice and the Myth" and of "Inside the White Cube," those influential articles on "the ideology of the gallery space" published by Artforum in 1976.

"Patrick Ireland" has been around since 1972, when, in response to Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, O'Doherty vowed that "until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights" he would sign his works of art with that nationalistic name.

His catalogue is littered with dozens of dropped names: "1958-61: Meets Edward Hopper, Marc Chagall, Walter Gropius, Josef Albers, Stuart Davis. Goes to New York City for encounter with Marcel Duchamp . . . 1961-64: Meets Stanley Kunitz, Jack Tworkov, Bob Rauschenberg, Morton Feldman, Mark Rothko, and others . . . 1965: Meets Eva Hesse, Dan Graham, Lucy Lippard, Sol Lewitt," etc.

His chronology includes other curious items. In 1939, it notes, he was "kidnaped briefly by gypsies." In 1957, while studying medicine at Cambridge, he saw "legendary Lord Adrian bicycling through town in gaiters." But nowhere does it mention that since 1969 -- as a part-timer at first, an adviser to Nancy Hanks, and as a full-time employe since 1976 -- O'Doherty has been a major player at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ireland's show is not a pay back. The National Museum is not given money by NEA. But O'Doherty remains a key figure in Washington art politics.

Walter Hopps, a former director of the Corcoran who worked for the National Museum before joining the Menil Foundation in Houston, last week told The Washington Times: "In my lifetime, and I was born when Herbert Hoover was president, I haven't seen anyone as effective vis-a -vis centralized power with respect to the manipulation of public money since [former Chicago mayor] Richard J. Daley controlled the Democratic machine."

Is O'Doherty's job in government entirely irrelevant? Its omission from the catalogue reinforces that hint of inside access, of back-channel connections, that hovers over the show.

Were Ireland a major innovator, it wouldn't matter much. But he isn't. Many of his pictures feel familiar. An aura of the secondhand, of lessons learned from others, diminishes this show.

His drawings based on chess, and on the movements of chess pieces, are in debt to Duchamp. So are his rope drawings, and his name-changing. His "Labyrinth" of 1967 suggests the just-as-simple mazes shown before that date by New York's Robert Morris. His cleanly geometrical drawings for the wall recall those of other artists, Mel Bochner, for example, and especially Lewitt, whose friendships he acknowledges.

These artists, though his betters, have yet to be given solo exhibitions by the National Museum of American Art.

In 1966, Ireland (then still Brian O'Doherty) invited Duchamp to dinner and then recorded his electrocardiogram. The series of drawings that resulted formed a kind of portrait of the master, or at least of his heart. "This," pronounces Lucy Lippard in her catalogue essay, "was a complex work, and a rather audacious one." Obsequious is more like it. Other homages to masters -- Tatlin and Fred Astaire, Borromini and James Joyce, not to mention Lewitt -- twinkle in his show.

He has tried his hand at happenings. In 1967 he choreographed a piece for "performers dressed in white body stockings or leotards with tight-fitting hoods covering their ears." They wore "featureless silver masks." The lines they repeated -- "Why don't you open the door?" "There's nobody there." "How do you know?" "I'm not expecting anyone" -- do not seem at this late date especially profound. Neither do the drawings that resulted when, in 1967, the artist "boiled down" his "verbal culture" to the three words, "ONE. HERE. NOW."

That sense of "boiling down" is felt often. Ireland has seen so much cerebral art, has studied it so well and absorbed it so completely, that his own work often seems to be a sort of scholar's synthesis. If one tries to edit out his bows to Duchamp and Malevich, to Bochner and Lewitt, to the history of Ireland and to the grids of Mondrian, there is not all that much left.

But what is left is worth seeing. His newest piece -- a room-sized drawing done with colored polygons painted on the wall and white ropes stretched in space -- is both cunning and compelling. The painted edges on the wall, and the white lines stretched in space, sometimes coincide with eye-pleasing precision: As one wanders through the room, crisp order and bland chaos dance a kind of minuet. This drawing won't be sold; it's a temporary work bound to one specific space. Ireland's exhibit will not travel. It will remain on view at the National Museum of American Art, Eighth and G streets NW, through Aug. 17.