In the early 1980s Julião Sarmento began a new phase in his work and was one of the artists who played a leading role in what became known as the "return to painting", taking part in the controversial exhibition After Modernism, held at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (1983). This decade marked the beginning of the internationalisation of Julião Sarmento's work, with his participation in the XI Biennale of Paris (1980), Documenta 7 (1982) and Documenta 8 (1987), consolidated in the following decade, when he was Portugal's representative in the 47th Venice Biennale (1997), and reaffirmed with his participation in the 25th Biennale of São Paulo (2002). This international visibility and recognition were strengthened and amplified by his collaborations with the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan (b. 1960), at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), with the video installation Close, curated by Michel Tarantino, and with the North Americans John Baldessari (1931–2020) and Lawrence Weiner (1942–2021) – major names in conceptual art – with the film Drift, made for the Centro Cultural de Belém (2004), curated by Delfim Sardo. Julião Sarmento also collaborated with the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz (1953–2001), when both their works occupied the Metalúrgica Alentejana in Beja (1993). In 2021, as part of the commemoration of the 18th anniversary of Umbigo magazine, the artistic project by Julião Sarmento and Lawrence Weiner is published, along with 17 other projects by other authors.
From 1976, the year of his first solo exhibition at the Galeria de Arte Moderna da Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (Lisbon), until 2020, his works were shown in dozens of exhibitions in various Portuguese galleries, with emphasis on the Galeria Cristina Guerra (Lisbon), and numerous European and North American galleries.
Julião Sarmento's work has been shown in Portugal at the most important museum institutions for contemporary art: at the Museu de Serralves, Porto (1992 and 2012), at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea – Fortaleza de São Tiago, Funchal (2001), at National Museum of Contemporary Art, Lisbon (2002 and 2020), at Visual Arts Centre, Coimbra (2004), at Arpad Szenes-Vieira da Silva Foundation, Lisbon (2011), at Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Elvas (2013), at Carmona e Costa Foundation, Lisbon (2018), at José de Guimarães International Centre for the Arts (2018). The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has dedicated three exhibitions to him: in 1993 and 2000 at Centro de Arte Moderna, and in 2016 at the Delegation in France. Internationally, the artist had seen his works exhibited in several museums in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Croatia, England, Brazil, and Mexico. From this exhibition activity resulted many books/catalogues, many of which were conceived in close collaboration with Julião Sarmento.
The different phases of his artistic career have also been analysed by critics and curators – Germano Celant, Alexandre Melo, Nancy Spector, Delfim Sardo, Hubertus Gabner, James Lingwood, Adrian Searle, Louise Neri, among others – in articles published in prestigious Portuguese and foreign specialised journals.
The artist's book was also a field of artistic action that Julião Sarmento experimented, conceiving his books within the principles of the avant-garde movements of the 1960s, which had its founding moment in Ed Ruscha's book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), with a first numbered edition of 400 copies.