Robert Cottingham s statement I don t care about being realistic isn t a surprising one for a contemporary artist to make, unless he or she happens to be, like Cottingham, one of the leading American practitioners of photorealism. His works, like those by many other artists exploring similar territory, delineate apparently prosaic subjects with dazzling, near-photographic precision. But Cottingham, driven to discover what he calls the abstract underpinnings of the commercial signs, storefronts, and railroad cars he depicts, produces paintings and prints that obscure as much as they reveal and frequently call into question their own verisimilitude. In his 1972 lithograph Orph, he depicts the neon-bedecked facade of a classic American movie house, but leaves both its name and the information displayed on its marquee tantalizingly fragmentary, inviting viewers to reach their own conclusions about the image and perhaps also paying sly homage to the geometric abstractions of Orphist painters Robert and Sonia Delaunay. In his 1986 etching O, Cottingham creates a stark, lyrical image, more akin to the works of Agnes Martin than those of fellow photorealist Richard Estes, by depicting a single letter from a jewelry storeþ s sign, gracefully and compellingly defying the conventions of representational art. Cottingham will speak at 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, and at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, (the latter, with fellow artist Chuck Close, requires reservations) in the museum’s lecture hall. The exhibit is up from Sept. 25 to Jan. 3, 1999, at the National Museum of American Art, 8th & G Sts. NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Leonard Roberge)