A pioneering figure in the Light and Space art movement, Irwin was born in Long Beach, California, and studied at the Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design), Jepson Art Institute, and Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Irwin’s installations employ light and materiality to challenge principles of structure, light, and space, often blurring the lines between interior and exterior and public and private spaces. Throughout his career Irwin produced work that was intended to be viewed both inside and outside the traditional gallery setting, directly challenging the viewer’s experiences and perceptions.
In 1980 Irwin installed a 120-foot-long, thin steel band, featuring cut leaf patterns, into a gentle, lakeside slope at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He installed Portal Park Piece (Slice) in the John W. Carpenter Plaza in Dallas, Texas in 1981. The plaza (now Carpenter Park) was redesigned by landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Jones in 2022; working with Irwin the firm modified and re-oriented the piece, which was re-titled Portal Park Slice.
In 1983 Irwin designed Two Running Violet V Forms at University of California San Diego in San Diego, California. That year he also completed 9 Spaces 9 Trees outside the police headquarters in Seattle, Washington. The work was relocated to the city’s University of Washington campus in 2007.
In the 1990s Irwin collaborated with gardener Jim Duggan and landscape architecture firm Spurlock Poirier to design the 134,000 square-foot sculptural Central Garden of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, California. From 1999 to 2003 the artist was engaged by Dia Art Foundation to transform a former factory in Beacon, New York, into an art museum. He envisioned the museum, Dia Beacon, as an artwork in and of itself, and developed both its interior and exterior spaces. In 2010 he designed the Primal Palm Garden at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California. Irwin completed untitled (dawn to dusk) in 2016 at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. The artist passed away in San Diego at the age of 95.