WHAT is Patrick Ireland trying to say? Born in Ireland, he adopted the name Patrick Ireland in 1972 for his visual art, "until," he said, "the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights." As an art critic and commentator, he continues to be known as Brian O'Doherty.

Changing his name was a bold statement, but his work is not, and reflects no political zeal. In "Patrick Ireland: Drawings 1965-85," at the Museum of American Art, he often uses graph paper, as if he cannot trust himself to strike out on his own. He employs timid pastels and lightly draws his lines or random dots.

He is exploring language and perception -- but except for his walk-in "Rope Installation," he largely leaves us out of it. His early drawings here from the late '60s show so little awareness of an audience that they are covered with smudges.

Artists sometimes obsess on numbers or words, and their wordplay may or may not become art. Often as with, say, Jonathan Borofsky, it's just a detour. But for Ireland it's practically a way of life -- a prolonged meditation.

His interest in notation led him to search for a perfectly "linear and serial" alphabet, which he found in his own back yard in the ancient Celtic alphabet called "ogham." It inspired an exhaustive series of drawings of crosshatchings that are in fact letters. He focused on the words One, Here and Now.

While his fascination for plotted space and the structure of language led him to a dead-end in "Vowel Chorus for Five Voices," Ireland seems to be liberating himself as he expands his concepts into room-size constructions. A maze of clothesline, the "Rope Installation" is like the child's pastime of cat's cradle, only you can walk through it. The ropes join up with trapezoids and rectangles painted in solid colors on the wall. Perspective changes as you walk among the ropes -- giving, as Ireland has said, "brief visions of order."

"Space is a kind of jungle, a complete chaos with no rhyme or reason at all," says Ireland. In that case, meditation may be the answer.